RALEIGH — With Democrats heading into 2021 with control of both the presidency and Congress, Republicans are looking ahead to the 2022 midterms as their chance to take back legislative power.
In North Carolina, state lawmakers will play a significant role in that effort in the months to come.
The 2020 census results should be released this spring. Once they are, the Republican-led legislature will begin drawing new political maps that would be used through the 2030 elections.
A new decade comes with new problems and new opportunities. The census will likely show North Carolina is one of the fastest-growing states in the country. That's expected to lead to an extra seat in Congress, increasing the House delegation from 13 to 14 seats.
But the population growth is highly uneven. The dense urban areas, where Democrats tend to do better, have far outpaced rural parts of the state where Republicans have more support.
While the state's changing demographics may not be in Republicans' favor, power and influence are. Since they kept their majorities in the state legislature in the 2020 elections, they will have wide leeway for how to draw the new lines. And because Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is prevented by state law from vetoing the maps, Republican legislators will only have to consider the threat of lawsuits when drawing new districts, not bipartisan support.
Republican Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden said the legislature plans to be transparent, but he's not under the illusion that the lines he and his fellow Republicans draw will get unanimous support.
"I'm not naive to the point where everybody's going to agree that whatever maps come out are maps that every individual would agree on," Berger said in a post-election interview. "I don't know that it's possible to get to that point."
Cooper said he expects Democrats and Republicans in the legislature will agree on some issues in 2021, but redistricting won't be one.
"You're going to see disagreements, significant disagreements on a lot of issues," Cooper said.
Many states have formed outside commissions to handle redistricting, in attempts to make the process less political. But not North Carolina. The process here remains fully in the legislature's control.
That's why in 2020, with their eye on this year's redistricting opportunities, Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars trying to take back control of the General Assembly. But they failed, and shortly after the election, Berger said he wasn't interested in establishing an independent commission to draw maps without the involvement of politicians.
In 2019, due to a court order that found the state's maps unconstitutional and in need of being redrawn before the 2020 elections, the General Assembly redrew maps with never-before-seen levels of transparency.
Berger said GOP lawmakers this year plan to copy much of what they did in 2019, even without a court forcing them to do it this time.
"Voters should know that the legislature is committed to a process that's open and transparent," he said.
Since the 1980s, both Democrats and Republicans have been caught drawing unconstitutional maps in their efforts to give themselves a better hold on power in Congress and the General Assembly.
Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, said that can be explained by the state's battleground status.
"The fact that North Carolina is such a purple state leads to no-holds-barred politics," Cooper said. "If you fail to act, you could be out of power for a decade."
Though redistricting is only supposed to happen at the start of each new decade, following the release of the newest census, courts can step in and order new maps to be drawn even in the middle of a decade. That has happened frequently in North Carolina.
Senate minority leader Dan Blue is optimistic, however, with Berger's commitment to transparency in the redistricting process this year. He and fellow Democrats successfully sued over multiple Republican-drawn maps throughout the last decade. But in a recent interview he said he hopes it doesn't come to that again.
"From 2011 to 2019, we were litigating North Carolina's maps — both congressional and legislative," Blue said. "I'm hoping since you've got many of the same players, that the lessons of litigation from the last decade are still registering with folks and we don't start this decade doing the same thing."
Because of federal law, even the maps redrawn as recently as 2019 were based on 2010 data. That meant those maps essentially pretended that the last decade's worth of population change never happened. But since North Carolina did grow so much — and so unevenly — in the last decade, the new maps this year could look very different.
Looking ahead to this summer or fall when the new maps will likely be drawn, Western Carolina's Cooper said Democrats have an advantage with the fact that so much growth is happening in the urban areas, while Republicans have an advantage with the fact that their voters are more spread out instead of clustered together.
Packing large numbers of Democratic voters into just a few districts was part of the reason why the state's maps were challenged as unconstitutional gerrymanders and then redrawn in 2019.
Some legislators and activists, mostly but not entirely Democrats, had hoped that Berger might change his mind about an independent redistricting commission this year. He hasn't.
The idea of creating an independent redistricting commission is well-intentioned, Berger said. "But the effort, ultimately, is to get politics out of politics. And I just don't know how you can be successful in doing that. It's almost looking for a unicorn."