Redistricting, the Census, and Power

Wed., Aug. 25: The politics of trying not to look political + Mark Robinson’s indoctrination report has hundreds of blank pages


1. What to Expect from North Carolina’s Redistricting Fight

Some things to keep in mind before we begin:

  • Donald Trump won North Carolina by 1.3 points—fewer than 75,000 votes—last year.

  • Roy Cooper defeated Republican Dan Forest by 4.5 points, or about 250,000 votes, in the race for governor.

  • Democratic congressional candidates earned 2,480,254 votes to Republicans’ 2,631,336, a 51-49 margin. (Caveat: I included Alma Adams’s 300,000-plus votes though she didn’t have an opponent.) But Republicans control eight* of the state’s 13 seats, about 69%. (Correction: Here and later in the original version of this post, I, being braindead, said Republicans had a 9–4 advantage; it is actually 8–5.)

  • Only two races had less than a 10-point margin: Democrat GK Butterfield won District 1 54–46, and Republican Richard Hudson won District 8 53–47.

  • Republicans control 38 seats in the 50-member state Senate, two shy of the supermajority they need to place constitutional amendments on the ballot and override Roy Cooper’s vetoes. Only nine of the 50 Senate races were decided by less than a 10-point margin last year.

  • Republicans control 69 of the 120 seats in the House, three shy of a supermajority. About 18% were decided by less than 10 points.

The takeaway: Even after the many legal battles last decade, which culminated in a court-ordered redistricting ahead of the 2020 election, Republicans maintain a home-field advantage that turns small electoral margins into governing dominance. Very few elections are close.

  • The state adds a congressional district this year.

In early August, weeks before the U.S. Census Bureau delivered the census data on which new congressional and legislative districts will be based, a state Senate Dem laid out his expectations:

  • “The real story is just how greedy will Republicans be with their maps,” he told me. “Semi-greedy and they’ll get a super-majority. Super-greedy and the courts take over.”

But the data looked somewhat more advantageous for Democrats than expected.

  • Nearly 80% of the state’s growth over the last 10 years occurred in the Charlotte and Triangle metros, both of which favor Democrats. Together, they accounted for roughly two in five of the state’s 10.4 million residents.

  • Meanwhile, 51 mostly rural counties, many Trump strongholds, saw their populations decline.

  • The state’s white population had declined from 65.3% to 60.5%.

To recap: A state where Republicans have a 0–3-point popular vote advantage has become more diverse while hemorrhaging population in rural areas and gaining in liberal cities and moderate suburbs.

  • But Republicans will likely turn an 8–5 congressional advantage into either a 10–4 or 9–5 one. (I’d be surprised if they went for an 11–3 map.)

  • They’ll absolutely draw themselves supermajorities in both chambers of the General Assembly.

  • And they’ll say they did it without any consideration of political considerations. (Few will believe them.)

The redistricting guidelines also forbid the use of racial data, though “local knowledge of the character of communities … may be considered.”

Without using racial data, Democrats and civil rights advocates say, it’s impossible for the new districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

“How do you comply with the VRA if you don’t consider racial data?” said Democratic Sen. Ben Clark, a Democrat from Raeford, in an interview with The News & Observer Wednesday. “You can’t. The VRA is about providing fair treatment to racial minorities. You can’t do that if you’re not using racial data.”

Clark also said that many lawmakers know the racial or political makeup of districts without looking at the data. The current criteria, Clark said, doesn’t prevent lawmakers’ own knowledge of their districts from informally being considered in drawing those maps.

If you’d like to see what a nonpartisan 14-seat congressional map might look like, N&O columnist Ned Barnett spotlighted a winner of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s Great American Map-Off, 24-year-old Durham resident Nathaniel Fischer.

Here are Fischer’s district data:

The breakdown:

  • 4 safe D

  • 4 safe R

  • 2 likely R

  • 2 lean R

  • 1 lean D

  • 1 toss-up

Most years, you’re looking at a 9–5 Republican delegation, with Dems having a shot at District 8 (along the SC border) with reach races in Districts 11 (WNC) and 14 (southwest of the Triangle). In a wave, Republicans could go 10–4 by winning District 1 in the northeastern part of the state.

  • This is with Republicans winning the overall vote by 1.4 points.

  • How is that fair? you ask.

Not everything is gerrymandering. Geography—namely, Democrats’ tendency to cluster in urban areas—plays a role, too, especially given North Carolina’s so-called Stephenson Criteria, which is a complicated set of rules that more or less say legislative mapmakers should only split counties when necessary to keep districts’ population roughly equal. In essence, an algorithm determines “county clusters” as the first step in districting.

To a degree, this limits the choices lawmakers have. But only to a degree.

According to a consulting firm run by Phil Berger’s former press secretary and chief of staff:

The bottom line in the State House is these groupings could not have come together much better for Republicans. The Republicans almost certainly will retain a majority in the House and have a very good chance at winning a supermajority. …

The optimal grouping maps for the State Senate redistricting plan worked out much better for Democrats than the House plan. Republicans are still favored to maintain a majority in the Senate and have a narrow pathway to a supermajority in a favorable election environment. But Democrats have opportunities for a majority too, if they can implement a gerrymander that maximizes their advantage in urban counties and slightly improve their performance in suburban districts. 

A paper from a group of demographers, statisticians, and political scientists assessing the General Assembly’s clustering options says the Stephenson rules fix 10 of the 50 Senate districts and 11 of 120 House districts in place. It also finds that at least six senators and four representatives will be double-bunked, meaning they’ll have to seek reelection against a fellow incumbent.

Although many of the [county] clusters are now fixed, the General Assembly will be left to choose between various clustering options in some parts of the state. Certainly, compliance with the Voting Rights Act will be a key consideration in choosing between potential clusters. Preservation of communities of interest might also drive the decision to select one option over another. One could also consider choosing clusters to reduce the population deviations.

In other words: Some things are locked in. But lawmakers have a lot of leeway, too. Republicans will say they’ve done everything fairly and transparently. Democrats will be skeptical. Lawsuits are a safe bet.

RELATED: On Monday morning, a three-judge panel ruled in a 2–1 decision that felons who are not in prison but are on probation should have their voting rights restored. The ruling—if it stands after inevitable appeals—will affect about 55,000 people.

From the N&O:

Most U.S. states allow people with felony records to regain their voting rights at some point after leaving prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. Some have the same rules North Carolina had until Monday’s ruling, requiring people to first finish their probation or parole. But a larger number have the rules that the judges have now switched North Carolina to, with people regaining their rights as soon as they leave prison.

The law’s challengers argued that felon disenfranchisement laws were explicitly created to stop Black people from voting in the years after the Civil War and coincided with a widespread campaign to accuse newly freed Black people of felonies—troubling trends, they said, which have continued into the current day. …

After the ruling Monday, Republican Sen. Warren Daniel of Morganton said he didn’t believe the judges had the authority to issue the decision they did. Daniel, who co-chairs the Senate’s committee on election law issues, said the issue of when felons should regain the right to vote is simply a policy debate that shouldn’t be settled in court.

“If a judge prefers a different path to regaining those rights, then he or she should run for the General Assembly and propose that path,” he said in a written statement to The N&O.

2. Mark Robinson Releases His Indoctrination Report

From The News & Observer’s T. Keung Hui:

Some North Carolina teachers are misusing their position to indoctrinate and influence students, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson claimed in a report he released Tuesday.

The “Indoctrination in North Carolina Public Education Report” comes as Robinson and other state Republican leaders are trying to pass legislation that would put new rules on how schools teach about race and racism. GOP leaders say the report, which they insisted is not meant to be a teacher witch hunt, shows that there’s a need to pass legislation targeted at regulating what’s taught in schools. …

Robinson presented his report Tuesday to the Senate Education Committee, which backed a bill that would prevent schools from “promoting” Critical Race Theory. Supporters say House Bill 324 will prevent indoctrination, but critics say it will have a chilling effect that causes teachers to whitewash the teaching of history.

Here’s why I spent a lot of time and roughly 3,000 words dissecting the evidence his task force received. Robinson’s claim isn’t unknowable; it can be scrutinized.

As my story explained yesterday, the proposed legislation and (in this context) the term “indoctrination” generally require compelled speech. But very few of the allegations—just 21 of the first 506 submissions—sent to Robinson’s task force approach that threshold. (Between July 14 and Aug. 24, the task force received an additional 74 submissions, which I have not yet analyzed.)

Robinson made a few statements at a press conference yesterday that warrant fact-checks.

  • “This task force set about to answer one question: Is there indoctrination happening in our public schools? After doing this report, and after doing this task force, the overwhelming answer—the overwhelming answer—is yes, it is.”

    • Declaring “overwhelming” evidence of indoctrination based on the evidence submitted to the task force requires a more expansive definition of the term.

    • That aside, it’s false that the task force was established to answer that question. In his own words, it was designed “to bring you the proof” that indoctrination exists. The task force’s findings were a foregone conclusion. Robinson declared indoctrination a top priority during last year’s campaign.

  • “As of today, we have received over 500 submissions from parents, teachers, and students who have concerns about some of the things that are being taught—not just taught in the schools, but absolutely forced onto students and teachers, and they want something to be done about it.”

    • With the caveat that I haven’t reviewed the final 74 submissions, this is an exaggeration.

    • About 20% of the submissions criticized or trolled Robinson, while about 9% voiced general support for the task force or the lieutenant governor without reporting any allegations.

    • Another 20% or so fell into a miscellaneous category. (See, for example, no. 569: “I want a forensic audit of our 202o election. WHat can I do to get involved” [sic])

Robinson offered two examples of indoctrination, neither of which made my list. (The lines are subjective; I describe the 21 submissions that I identified below.)

  • Submission 162: The mother of two girls at North Ridge Elementary School complained about four LGBTQ-themed books in the school library that she deemed inappropriate. A school committee refused to remove them, she wrote to Robinson.

    • While the original submission didn’t name the books, Robinson’s office followed up and learned that one was Alex Gino’s George, the story of a transgender fourth-grader that “informs the readers that boys can take hormone therapy to suppress testosterone and can undergo surgery to alter their anatomy.”

    • Whether or not this book is appropriate for elementary-age children, it doesn’t constitute “indoctrination” in the sense of compelling speech.

  • Submission 506: I debated adding this to my indoctrination list based on the last sentence, but a) North Carolina Governor’s School is a supplemental summer program, not a K-12 institution, which was the task force’s ambit, and b) there wasn’t enough information in the submission to justify doing so anyway. (Also, gender is widely accepted as a social construct.)

    • “Today’s lesson at NC Governor’s School which is run by DPI. The gender unicorn. There is no gender. Gender is a spectrum and a social construct and it is determined by how you feel. I have no issue with this as a discussion for students to be able to agree or disagree with. However this was presented as a lecture and students were told this is how it is. Students were also told to go back and journal about how being heterosexual made them privileged.”

    • The task force made this one into a case study (beginning on page 168), saying it identified themes of privilege and white shaming, which would violate HB 324.

    • On page 171, the task force report says it will display instructional materials as evidence of lessons on white privilege and other kinds of privilege (male, cisgender, Christian, straight, intellectual—which is, admittedly, a new one for me). But in the original version of the report, three pages of (mundane) quotes were followed by 50 pages containing either white space or blacked-out boxes, presumably where slides were supposed to go. (In that version, submissions 23 through 149 are completely blacked out.)

  • One person messaged me that the report is “definitely not ready for prime time.”

  • Robinson’s website later reported “technical difficulties due to the size of the [full] report,” and eventually uploaded a version that fixed the Governor’s School mess but eliminated the submissions altogether. (I’ve uploaded them here.)

Four other things caught my eye.

  1. What Robinson focused on most during the press conference—The Governor’s School’s “gender unicorn” and the book George—had little to do with the critical race theory bill that Berger came to promote. (The Senate Education Committee advanced the bill shortly after the presser.)

    • “There are an awful lot of submissions from concerned parents but also from scared teachers—critical race theory or wokeism or whatever you want to call it,” Berger said.

    • “Take these teachers seriously,” he continued. “They are raising a red flag. Don’t tell me the doctrine [of critical race theory] doesn’t exist. 

  2. In May, the LG’s office provided me with the names of 15 task force members. But only 12 signed the report. The ones missing: a UNC-Chapel Hill professor, a Buncombe County principal, and a Wake County principal.

    • In July, I located voter registrations for 13 of the 15 members; only two were Democrats. The Dems were the principles who didn’t sign the report. The UNC professor is an unaffiliated voter.

  3. The task force report identifies as its first “overarching theme” “fear of retaliation.”

    • “Teachers, parents, and students across the state are afraid to report indoctrination, or speak up in their communities, out of fear they will lose their jobs or face mistreatment.” (It cites 10 submissions from educators.)

    • Teachers cannot be fired or face retaliation for speaking out about political issues. (See Pickering v. Board of Education.) If conservative teachers can prove this is happening, they have grounds to sue.

  4. While Berger wants to use the report to push HB 324, Robinson hasn’t figured out his angle yet.

    • “It’s uncharted territory,” he said yesterday. “No one, I believe, has tackled [indoctrination] in this way. We don’t know where this report is going to lead us or the end result.”

The head of the North Carolina Association of Educators noticed two “glaring issues”:

  • She’s right about no. 2. It’s probably somewhere between a third to a half.

  • About no. 1: She has a point. The LG’s office redacted the names of submitters—though this is correspondence with a government official, and should be a public record—but made no such accommodation for the teachers subjected to unverified accusations in this report.

    • Due to an error in what they sent me, I have the unredacted version of roughly 300 complaints.

Should I publish their names?

▶️ Indoctrination

My synopses of the 21 allegations that, according to my analysis, violate one of the tenets of HB 324 or qualify as compelled political speech are apparently too long to fit in this newsletter. So instead, I turned them into a viewable Google Doc.