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People’s guide to Guilford County Commission redistricting

by Jordan Green

Redrawing the political district boundaries for the Guilford County Commission is potentially more complicated than it was with the Greensboro City Council, where that board approved a partisan gerrymandered map and then rescinded it after constituents responded with outrage.

The city council redistricting fiasco was easy to fix because the population variance was relatively low and the districts could be rebalanced by reassigning one or two precincts. In the case of both the Guilford County Commission and the Guilford County School Board, which currently have identical plans, the variance is 28 percent — well above a 10 percent threshold that determines whether plans are constitutional.

Guilford County commissioners have pledged to make the process more open than their counterparts on city council.

“I don’t want to get like the city council did and have it show up in the middle of the night,” said Paul Gibson, a Democrat who holds one of the board’s two at-large seats. “I’d like anything that I or anyone else puts out there to be thoroughly vetted by the community.” That’s more or less where the consensus breaks down.

District 4 Commissioner Kirk Perkins and Chairman Skip Alston, who represents District 8 — both Democrats — say they want to reassign the minimal number of precincts to achieve population balance. Most of the districts favor one party or the other, and Perkins said most of the incumbents of both parties like the current constituent makeup of their districts.

“If you look at the map we have now, and you look at the new map we approve, they will not be day-and-night different,” Perkins said. “We’ll have a few tweaks here and there.”

Perkins represents District 4, a high growth district covering rural northeast Guilford County. A handful of predominantly African-American precincts in east Greensboro help it maintain a Democratic lean.

A potential dilemma arises in that Alston and Carolyn Coleman’s respective districts — the two majority-minority districts in Greensboro — are both in the low-growth column. That means they need to pick up one or two precincts between them. A logical place to find them would be to the east, in District 4. Yet, in any scenario in which District 4 gives up two east Greensboro precincts, its Democratic registration falls below 50 percent.

“If that fell to 49 percent, then Kirk Perkins, with the right opponent, could have a real run for his money, in my opinion,” said Bill Wright, former chairman of the Guilford County Republican Party. “I would say there are a number of conservative Democrats in that district. That’s a rural, agricultural community out there. I think they probably lean conservative enough and they might be willing to consider voting for a Republican candidate.”

An alternative would be for District 4 to shed one or two precincts that make up a finger following Lees Chapel Road into Greensboro after traveling around the two majority-minority precincts.

A different complication arises in that scenario.

Guilford County School Board Chairman Alan Duncan, who represents District 4, said the two boards have traditionally tried to work together on redistricting so they can keep their maps consistent. Considering that voters already have to keep track of their districts for city council, NC House, NC Senate and Congress, maintaining consistency between the school board and county commission at least eliminates the need to memorize one more set of districts.

After the requirements of balancing populations and complying with the Voting Rights Act, Duncan noted a third rule of thumb.

“You try to draw the lines in such a way that the person who is the elected official remains in the district,” he said. “Last time we did that, one of the board members would have been placed outside of his district based on preliminary plans. That worked alright because that board member had already indicated that he would not run again.”

Duncan lives in Precinct G21, at the end of the “Lees Chapel Road finger.” The school board is nonpartisan, but if it follows the county commission and if the county commission tries to maintain a Democratic advantage in District 4, Duncan could find himself exiled from his district.

While Alston and Perkins favor a minimal change, Gibson has joined some of his Republican colleagues in advocating for an overhaul.

Gibson and Republican Billy Yow, who represents District 5, favor a 6-2-1 plan, which would entail a reduction of the number of districts from nine to six. Three members would be elected at large, with the chairman being chosen from among the at-large representatives. Such a system would preclude Alston from serving as chair. Overall, the size of the board would drop from 11 to nine members.

Gibson and others argue that the board, as currently structured, is not accountable to the voters and that the districts are not competitive, as evidenced by the fact that district representatives typically go into general elections without opposition.

Guilford County, which has the third largest population in the state, has more members on its county commission than any other across North Carolina. Mecklenburg County, which is the most populous, has nine commissioners. Neighboring Forsyth County has seven commissioners, as do Wake and Cumberland. Durham, Buncombe and New Hanover each have five.

Gibson acknowledged the board needs to strike a balance between accountability and representation.

“I served from 1984 to 1986 on a five-member board,” he said. “That was easy, and we got things done quickly, but it was not representative of Guilford County. We had no minority members. We were not representative racially or geographically.”

Past changes in the size of the county commission have had a partisan cast, which is likely to color the current redistricting process with the Democratic-controlled board.

Gibson said that 20 years ago the county commission had seven members. Democrats lost control of the board in the early 1990s. The Democrats on the county commission turned to their friends in the General Assembly, including NC Sen. Bill Martin, for help.

“Senator Martin, a fine man and a friend of mine, introduced a bill in the middle of the night that increased the number of districts from seven to 11,” Gibson said. “That was done for the benefit of the Democratic Party.”

The Democrats won back control of the county commission in the next election, in 1992. Any change in the size or structure of the board would require action by the NC General Assembly. Considering that reducing the size of the county commission has been a longstanding goal of Republicans, the change would likely find support in Raleigh.

“With Republicans in control of the General Assembly, I don’t think that would be a problem,” said Linda Shaw, a Republican who represents District 3 on the commission.

By reducing the number of districts from nine to six, Gibson and Yow point out that the board could maintain a proportionate number of majority-minority districts, which would drop from three to two.

“I don’t think there’s support on the board to do it, I don’t think there’s support in the community to do it and I don’t think there’s support at the Justice Department to do it,” Alston said.

Alston said the Justice Department is likely to view any reduction in the number of majority-minority districts as retrogressive, especially considering that the overall minority population in the county is not large enough to give a minority candidate a fair shot at winning an at-large seat.

African Americans, the county’s largest minority group, have increased in share from 29.3 percent to 32.5 percent over the past decade. The overall minority population has grown from 35.5 percent to 43.0 percent, suggesting that much of the growth is among Hispanics and Asians. Yet an estimated 50 percent of Hispanics in North Carolina are undocumented, which means they can be discounted as a political force.  

The lowest growth district is the majority-minority district in High Point, with the two majority-minority districts in Greensboro also losing population share relative to most of their cohort. That, coupled with the fact that the share of minority population across the county has increased, suggests that blacks and other minorities are moving out to the suburbs. Yet minorities, who traditionally lean Democratic, have not changed the makeup of north High Point and of northwestern and southeastern Guilford significantly enough to cut into strong Republican advantages.

That creates a dilemma for maintaining minority representation in a six-district plan. The minority population is large enough to create a Greensboro district with a strong minority majority, with black, Latino and Asian voters to spare. That’s not the case in High Point. Going down to six districts means that each district has to absorb a larger number of people. No matter which direction the High Point majority-minority district grows, it has to pick up precincts that tend to be whiter, diluting the minority vote.

Similar to the six-district plan favored by Gibson and Yow, News & Record columnist Doug Clark has proposed a five-district plan with four at-large members. One advantage of such an arrangement is that every voter would be represented by more than half of the members of the board. Yet the challenges of minority representation associated with 6-2-1 plan only worsen by dropping an additional district.

Current plan

"1._Current_plan.jpg" Population variance: 28.0 percent Changes: None Number of precincts moved: 0 Number of people moved: 0 Advantage: None (not allowable) Disadvantage: Population variance above 10 percent threshold, with the result that the plan fails the Constitutional requirement of equal representation.

Bipartisan gerrymander plan

"2._Bipartisan_gerrymander_plan.jpg" Population variance: 7.0 percent Changes: G05 moves from District 4 to District 9, G16 and G35 move from District 7 to District 6, G21 moves from District 4 to District 7, G32 moves from District 3 to District 7, G43 moves from District 3 to District 6, G61 moves from District 6 to District 8, and H02, H20A and H20B move from District 2 to District 1 Number of precincts moved: 10 Number of people moved: 25,790 Political implications: Slightly reduces black population of District 8, but minimizes damage to Democratic registration advantage by swiping one rather than two heavily Democratic leaning precincts from District 4 Advantages: Minimal changes to party registration ratios make this plan the one most likely to get majority support on the board. Likewise, the plan reassigns a minimal number of voters. Disadvantages: Makes District 8 more elongated by making it grow west to avoid cutting into Democratic voter registration to the east in District 4. A political liability arises in the fact that the Guilford County School Board has expressed interest in redrawing its own map in tandem with the county commission, and this map would redraw school board Chairman Alan Duncan out of his district. Leaves population variance relatively high.

Clean-up plan

"3._Clean_up_plan.jpg" Population variance: 4.5 percent Changes: FR2 moves from District 2 to District 5, G05 and G72 move from District 4 to District 9, G16, G17, G33 and G35 move from District 7 to District 6, G21 and G26 move from District 4 to District 7, G32 moves from District 3 to District 7, G55 moves from District 9 to District 8, H02 and H20B move from District 2 to District 1, NCGR1 and NCGR2 move from District 3 to District 4, RC1 moves from District 5 to District 4 Number of precincts moved: 16 Number of people moved: 46,350 Political implications: Even more so than others, this plan significantly reduces the percentage of Democratic voters in District 4 — from 53.1 percent to 46.4 percent. It’s still a Democratic leaning district, but it become much more competitive in a general election. Advantages: Features lowest population variance of all plans. Creates more compact districts by straightening out irregular boundary lines; reunites previously split Starmount neighborhood in Greensboro; transfers from New Irving Park neighborhood in Greensboro from a northeast Guilford district to an urban Greensboro district; results in a less significant reduction in minority population in District 1 by keeping its overall population low compared to others, and thus has a better chance of meeting the requirements of the Voting Rights Act than other plans Disadvantages: Even more so than other plans, may not be politically viable because it undercuts Democratic incumbent’s electoral advantage in District 4. Another political liability arises in the fact that the Guilford County School Board has expressed interest in redrawing its own map in tandem with the county commission, and this map would redraw school board Chairman Alan Duncan out of his district. Moves higher number of people than other plans, causing disruption and possible confusion to voters.

Nonpartisan Plan A

"4._Nonpartisan_Plan_A.jpg" Population variance: 5.3 percent Changes: G05 and G72 move from District 4 to District 9, G16, G17 and G35 move from District 7 to District 6, G32, NCGR1 and NGR2 move from District 3 to District 7, G55 moves from District 9 to District 8, and H02, H20A and H20B move from District 2 to District 1 Number of precincts moved: 12 Number of people moved: 27,897 Political implications: Moving two heavily Democratic precincts in east Greensboro out of District 4 shaves off its Democratic majority. Democratic registration drops from 53.1 percent to 49.8 percent, making it more competitive for a Republican candidate. Advantages: Reunites previously split Starmount neighborhood in District 6. Achieves relatively low population variance, while reassigning relatively small number of voters. Disadvantage: May not be politically viable because of possible opposition from District 4 incumbent on Guilford County Commission.

Nonpartisan Plan B

"5._Nonpartisan_Plan_B.jpg" Population variance: 5.7 percent Changes: G05 and G72 move from District 4 to District 9, G32 and G40A2 move from District 3 to District 7, G43 moves from District 3 to District 6, G55 moves from District 9 to District 8, and H02, H20A and H20B move from District 2 to District 1 Number of precincts moved: 9 Number of people moved: 24,912 Political implications: Moving two heavily Democratic precincts in east Greensboro out of District 4 shaves off its Democratic majority. Democratic registration drops from 53.1 percent to 49.8 percent, making it more competitive for a Republican candidate. Advantage: Moves smallest number of people, although it’s not a tremendous improvement over the bipartisan gerrymander plan in this regard. Disadvantage: May not be politically viable because of possible opposition from District 4 incumbent on Guilford County Commission.

6-district plan

"6._6_district_plan.jpg" Population variance: 2.2 percent Changes: Every precinct reassigned to new districts drawn up from scratch Number of precincts moved: 158 Number of people moved: 488,406 Political implications: Creates three Democratic-leaning districts, two of which are majority minority; two Republican-leaning districts; and one competitive district. Assuming that the six district seats were augmented with three at-large seats — as favored by at-large Commissioner Paul Gibson, District 3 Commissioner Linda Shaw and District 5 Commissioner Billy Yow — a Republican candidate would likely have a shot at one of them. This map forces Democrats Bruce Davis and Skip Alston to compete with each other within a High Point-based majority-minority district; draws Republican Linda Shaw into a Democratic-leaning Greensboro district that would favor Democrat Kay Cashion; forces Democrat Kirk Perkins and Republican Billy Yow to run against each other within a competitive, rural eastern Guilford district. Democrat Carolyn Coleman would have a clear shot at the Greensboro majority-minority district, while Republican Bill Bencini would be well placed to win election in the western Guilford district.    Advantages: Population variance lowest of any plan. Simplifies district lines, giving voters a better opportunity to familiarize themselves with their representatives. Each district would have a larger number of viable candidates, increasing competition. District lines tend to follow tangible demarcations, such as railroad tracks, Pisgah Church Road/Lees Chapel Road, Interstate 40, High Point Road, Guilford College Road. Reunites Starmount neighborhood. Reassigns New Irving Park neighborhood to a more geographically logical district. Reunites two Pleasant Garden precincts. All of east Greensboro up to Cone Boulevard is in one precinct, reducing confusion about representation. Disadvantages: Likely to fail retrogression test and be rejected by the US Justice Department for two reasons: It reduces the number of majority-minority district from three to two. Based on countywide demography and voter attitudes, minority candidates would have difficulty winning one of the three at-large seats. Also, minority voter registration drops to about 54 percent and black registration drops to about 47 percent in the new High Point-based majority-minority district. In comparison, the current High Point majority-minority district is able to maintain about 60 percent minority voter registration and about 54 percent black registration because its population base allows more choice in selection of precincts. Minority representation on the commission could conceivably go from three out of 11 to one out of nine seats. Disrupts preexisting constituent relationships with elected representatives and causes discomforting change. Splits High Point into two districts, while taking precincts from south Greensboro to create a district designed to enhance minority candidates’ ability to compete.

5-district plan

"7._5_district_plan.jpg"

Population variance: 4.8 percent Changes: Every precinct reassigned to new districts drawn up from scratch Number of precincts moved: 158 Number of people moved: 488,406 Political implications: Forces Democratic incumbents Bruce Davis and Skip Alston to compete against each other in a new minority-influence district cobbled together from High Point, Jamestown and Greensboro precincts; moves Republican officeholder Linda Shaw into a new Democratic-leaning district; forces Democrats Kirk Perkins and Carolyn Coleman, along with Republican Bill Yow to compete against each other in a new rural east district; white Democrat Kay Cashion is drawn into a new Greensboro minority influence district. The plan would create two majority-minority districts that would be a lock for Democrats, one urban Greensboro district that would favor a Democratic candidate, a northwest Guilford and north High Point district that would favor a Republican candidate, and a competitive district in east Guilford. Democrats would retain an overall advantage on the board. Advantages: Makes it easier for voters to learn their districts and allows for compact districts that contain populations with common character (i.e. urban/rural, income level, geography). Reunites Pleasant Garden and Sumner precincts. Places east Greensboro in one district. Draws relatively clean lines along western and eastern borders of Greensboro. Each constituent has a larger number of representatives on the board. Disadvantages: Same concerns as 6-district plan, except minority voting influence in High Point majority-minority district is even more diluted.

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