Mitigating the Pernicious Effects of Gerrymandering in North Carolina: The Super-District Alternative

by Super Districts, Jais Mehaji, Rob Richie // Published July 29, 2011



  • North Carolina lawmakers have approved one of the nation’s most extreme partisan gerrymanders this year. Four of the state’s seven Democratic incumbents are clearly targeted for defeat. The new map reduces the number of the state’s 13 congressional districts carried by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race from eight to only three, with the remaining 10 district all ones where John McCain won at least 55% of the vote.
  • The root of the worst problems with redistricting is use of winner-take-all elections in which 51% of voters can elect 100% of representation. Political activity will have no impact on representation in a winner-take-all election where a candidate is comfortably ahead or hopelessly behind.
  • FairVote has drawn a “super district” map designed for election with a proportional voting system. Our proportional plan upholds Supreme Court rulings on equal population while guaranteeing competitive voter choice for all voters in every election, fairer representation for backers of the major parties and more opportunities for candidate who are women, politically independent and/or African Americans.
  • Such proportional voting plans are legal under the Constitution, but would require Congress to repeal a 1967 law mandating one-seat districts. North Carolina could establish such a plan by statute for state legislative elections.



On July 27, the North Carolina legislature on partisan lines passed into law SB 453, a new map for congressional districts. The plan is an extreme partisan gerrymander – made more ironic by the fact that in June, the state’s house of representatives had overwhelmingly passed HB 824, a bill that would create an independent redistricting process a decade from now.

Republicans this year control the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. The governor had no power to veto the legislature’s plan, giving Republicans free reign to undo the current majority of congressional seats held by Democrats. In this post we evaluate the controversy and propose an alternative plan that puts voters first, relying on “super districts” with a proportional voting electoral system.

Here is what the state’s proposed plan looks like, compared to the previous plan used in 2002-2010 elections that had been crafted by the Democratic-controlled legislature in 2001.

New Redistricting Map for 2012-2020



Current Map (used in elections in 2002-2010)










Controversies with New Redistricting Plan

The proposed new plan might not look too different from the old plan at a glance, but it reflects key changes. Democrats today have a 7-6 U.S. House seat advantage in North Carolina, but the proposed plan puts four Democratic incumbents at serious risk and is designed to lock in a 10-3 Republican advantage for decade.

North Carolina political consultant John Davis provided one of the first analyses of the plan. As he reports, the most striking change is in the concentration of the Democratic vote into three districts, leaving the rest with a strong Republican lean.

For example, when narrowly winning the state in 2008, President Obama carried eight of the state’s 13 congressional districts (a Democratic tilt that reflected the enduring effects of the Democratic gerrymander in 2001). Overlaying the 2008 election results into the 13 new districts, Obama only carries three (the districts likely to be won by Democrats Butterfield, Price and Watt).

Every remaining district was drawn to be heavily Republican. In 2008, John McCain won 55% or more in only four districts (those of Republicans Jones, Foxx, Myrick and McHenry). The new plan increases that number to ten districts. In partisan voting index terms, that means that Republicans would be favored to win easy landslide wins in ten of 13 seats if all seats were open and held in a nationally competitive year between the major parties.

This shows how the plan is a remarkable Republican gerrymander. We use our partisan index based on the 2008 presidential race:

District Likely Winner
Index (D)
1 Democrat
2 Republican
3 Republican
4 Democrat
5 Republican
6 Republican
7 Republican
8 Republican
9 Republican
10 Republican
11 Republican
12 Democrat
13 Republican

The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake explains other aspects of the plan:

“A new redistricting map proposed by the North Carolina Republican Party would continue to seriously endanger Democratic Reps. Heath Shuler, Mike McIntyre, Brad Miller and Larry Kissell. Unlike the state GOP’s first proposal, though, this one puts McIntyre’s and Miller’s homes into other members’ districts. Furthermore, it would make both McIntyre’s and Kissel’s even more Republican than before.

“According to numbers obtained by The Fix, under the new plan both McIntyre’s 7th district and Kissell’s 8th district would both have gone about 57 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential race. Under the first proposal, the districts would have gone 55 percent for McCain. The new map also would likely force McIntyre — perhaps the toughest of the four targets for Republicans to defeat — to move into the new 7th to run for reelection. And Miller, who is drawn into Rep. David Price’s (D-N.C.) district, would also face a tough reelection decision”

Among criticisms of the plan, some Democrats have focused on how the Republican plan concentrates black voters, putting additional black voters into more districts than necessary for black voters to elect a candidate of choice – although, as the Post’s Blake points out, that action was done in part due to concerns raised by African American incumbent G.K. Butterfield about his original redrawn district.

FairVote’s Super District Alternative

FairVote backs replacing winner-take-all elections that disadvantage voters in the minority with geographically compact “super districts” using a proportional voting system. Under our proposal North Carolina would be divided into three super districts that each elects more than one Member of Congress: five seats in Super District 1 (SD1) and SD2, and three seats in SD3. (Each districts would have the same number of people per Member of Congress, which is the measure to use for upholding constitutional apportionment plans.)

Our methodology required us to work from an existing district plan, using each district as a building block for our new districts. We entered racial and partisan data for each of the proposed new congressional districts in the plan backed by the legislature, based on data from the North Carolina legislature.

With a proportional voting plan, a like-minded group of voters with just over 25% of the vote would be sure of electing a candidate in the three-seat super district and could win two if earning more than 50% of the vote. In a five-seat super district, winning one seat would take about 17% of the vote, winning two would take about 34% and winning a majority of three seats would take just over 50%.

Here is what our proposed multi-seat district plan looks like:

Voting Rights Analysis of FairVote Plan

Super districts Number of seats Population per seat Threshold to win White VAP Black VAP Districts in super district
1 3 733,499 25.01% 86.01% 8.49% 5,10,11
2 5 733,499 16.67% 73.76% 17.48% 2,6,8,9,12
3 5 733,499 16.67% 64.85% 26.88% 1,3,4,7,13
Statewide   9,535,483   73.22% 18.98%  

: In a state like North Carolina, where racial dynamics have been particularly important when it comes to elections, African Americans voters will be well-positioned to elect two representatives. They also would have a strong chance to help elect a third candidate of choice, given how far they are above the threshold to win a seat in SD-3.


Partisan Analysis of FairVote Plan

Super district Number of seats Population per seat Threshold to win 1 seat Partisan Index,
Dem* (D)
Projected party split What districts used to create super districts
SD- 1 3 733,499 25.01% 38.6% (D) (D-1,R-2) 5,10,11
SD- 2 5 733,499 16.67% 47.2% (D) (D-2,R-2,1?) 2,6,8,9,12
SD- 3 5 733,499 16.67% 51.3% (D) (D-2,R-2,1?) 1,3,4,7,13
Statewide   9,535,483   47.53% (D) (D-5,R-6,?-2)  

* The partisan index is based on an interpretation of the 2008 presidential election. The Republican partisan index can be determined by subtracting the Democratic partisan index from 100% (e.g., SD-1 has a Republican partisan index of 61.4%).

: Our two five-seat districts would be closely balanced, meaning the fifth seat would always be in play in every election. The three-seat western district would have a clear Republican lean, but Democrats might be able to make it competitive.

Contrasting Redistricting Proposals in North Carolina

  Existing Districts Proposed 1-Seat districts FairVote Super District Plan Statewide Voter
Partisan Split Projection



In play-2

47.5% Dem-lean
52.5% GOP-lean

Race and Representation** White voters-11
Black voters-2
White voters-11,
Black voters-2
White voters-10,
Black voters-2,
In play -1
73.22% White 18.98% Black

* Partisan division is based on the Partisan Index and the 2008 presidential race.
** For race and representation, African American voters might not necessarily elect a black candidate. Rather, this measures the likelihood of white voters and African American voters electing strongly preferred candidates.

Winner-take-all elections subject voters in North Carolina to a representation deficit. They only reward a single candidate that wins in each area while pushing aside the influence of other voters. Democrats benefited from their 2001 gerrymandering throughout the past decade, and now Republicans have turned the tables their direction.

Super districts with proportional voting would create ongoing balance and fairness, with changes reflecting national shifts and the qualities of individual candidates able to draw support from voters who might often vote for candidates from another party.

On racial representation, our super district alternative counteracts the partisan effects of “packing” – a redistricting tactic that loads up some districts with a large number of voters of a party or community so that more districts can be drawn elsewhere that favor the opposing party. It naturally allows for fair representation of racial minorities without having to take any special care in how districts lines are drawn – our three districts, even though constrained in their composition by having to work within the legislature’s plan, follow natural division in the state that reflect the mountain west, tidal east and central area in between.

Moreover, the new districts are remarkable in their level of non-competitiveness, with no seats likely to be competitive if all seats were open in a nationally competitive year – and unlikely to be competitive if the four Democratic incumbents indeed are ousted by the plan, and every incumbent represents a district designed to be safe for that candidate’s party.

In contrast, every one of our districts would present opportunities for voters to elect candidates of each major party, and have a real chance to swing the overall number of seats won by each party. Furthermore, within each party’s near-guaranteed share of seats, incumbents still have to work to keep their seat.

New voices also could be heard. Minor parties and independents would have a greater chance to win a seat. Women candidates would likely increase their success in a state with only three women House Members. All voters would experience a competitive election every two years.

To establish our plan, Congress would need to restore North Carolina’s former power to use proportional voting. But North Carolina could act more quickly for its state legislative elections, as it has a long history of using multi-seat districts, although using winner-take-all rules. Doing so with a proportional voting systems would take power away from the political cartographers and give it to voters. With our government founded on the principle of determining the consent of the governed, it’s time to reject winner-take-all and put voters in charge.