The major function of the decennial census is apportionment, the allocation of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to states based on their population size. Every 10 years, following reapportionment, states undergo a redistricting process, redrawing congressional (and other) district boundaries to reflect population changes within their state. Individual redistricting guidelines vary from state to state, but basic federal requirements for congressional redistricting mandate equal population size among the redrawn congressional districts based on the most recent Census data.
Between 2000 and 2010, North Carolina grew by 19.4% and gained more than 1.5 million new residents. In spite of North Carolina’s rapid population growth, the state did not gain an additional seat in the House of Representatives during reapportionment. Although North Carolina’s total number of congressional districts remained the same after 2010 as it was in 2000—13 seats—not every district drawn based on the 2000 Census data grew at the same rate over the decade. There was significant variation in population growth across the state: major metropolitan areas grew rapidly, while other areas experienced slow growth or population declines.
These population shifts necessitated significant changes in congressional district boundaries during redistricting. These changes were further complicated by political considerations. North Carolina’s redistricting process is controlled by the state legislature. In legislative-controlled redistricting processes, the party in power—whether Democrat or Republican—often draws district lines in their favor, a practice known as gerrymandering. The Democrats controlled the North Carolina legislature during the 2001 redistricting process. The balance of power shifted to Republicans in 2011. (According to the Washington Post, North Carolina and Maryland share the “honor of most-gerrymandered state.” In response to this “honor,” multiple North Carolina groups, such as End Gerrymandering Now, advocate the adoption of a non-partisan redistricting process such as the Iowa model.)
From the Brennan Center for Justice:
Our representatives in local, state, and federal government set the rules by which we live. In ways large and small, they affect the taxes we pay, the food we eat, the air we breathe, the ways in which we make each other safer and more secure… All of our legislators in state government, many of our legislators in local government, and most of our legislators in Congress are elected from districts, which divide a state and its voters into geographical territories. In most of these districts, all of the voters are ultimately represented by the candidate who wins the most votes in the district. The way that voters are grouped into districts therefore has an enormous influence on who our representatives are, and what policies they fight for. For example, a district composed mostly of farmers is likely to elect a representative who will fight for farmers’ interests, but a district composed mostly of city dwellers may elect a representative with different priorities. Similarly, districts drawn with large populations of the same race, or ethnicity, or language, or political party are more likely to elect representatives with the same characteristics.
[S]ometimes, the way that a particular district is redrawn directly affects who can win the next election. And together, the way that the districts are redrawn can affect the composition of the legislative delegation or legislature as a whole. Many believe that we would have different representatives, federal and state, if the district lines were drawn differently.
The U.S. Census Bureau and its state partners are gearing up for the 2020 Census. These results will be used to reapportion U.S. congressional seats among the states and initiate state-level redistricting processes in 2021.
North Carolina continues to grow rapidly. State population is projected to increase to 10.5 million by 2020, and intra-state disparities in population growth and decline have only grown sharper since 2010. Moreover, by 2020, North Carolina is likely to gain a 14th seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, introducing new challenges in redistricting.