by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
This article is part of a limited series of research briefs demonstrating the ways law and geography constrain how legislators can draw North Carolina’s General Assembly districts.
The North Carolina General Assembly held its first remote redistricting hearing at Caldwell Community College and Technical Institute in Caldwell County on September 8. Despite pleas from several speakers at the hearing, Caldwell County residents will not get what they want from redistricting.
One of the 14 speakers at the hearing was Donny Potter, a Caldwell County Commissioner. He asked legislators not to split Caldwell County in the current round of redistricting (testimony starts at 19:05 in hearing video).
It’s important to me and important to us, as a citizen and a county commissioner, that we leave our county whole, that we do not split the county. … We have a great working relationship with our House of Representatives and our other legislators; we communicate well; we know who to talk to when things happen in the county. … I can tell you that I have had a lot of success with our legislators.
Other speakers at the hearing also asked that Caldwell County not be split between legislative seats in redistricting.
Caldwell County certainly has the political clout to have its way in redistricting. The chair of the House Redistricting Committee, Destin Hall, represents Caldwell County. One of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee chairs, Warren Daniel, represents Caldwell, Avery, and Burke Counties.
Recent history is also on the county’s side. It is not divided in either of the current North Carolina House, North Carolina Senate, or congressional maps (see Figure 1 for a detail of Caldwell County’s North Carolina House district).
Source: North Carolina General Assembly
In short, if there is any county in North Carolina that has the redistricting history and political clout to avoid being divided in the next round of redistricting, it is Caldwell County.
Caldwell County will be divided in the next round of redistricting.
Caldwell County is currently wholly contained in Senate District 46 with Avery and Burke counties. However, population shifts in North Carolina mean that those three counties do not have enough population to contain an entire Senate district.
As discussed here, the goal of the first phase of redistricting state legislative districts in North Carolina, county clustering, is to create the “minimum number of districts within the minimum number of counties.” Two studies on county clusters after the 2020 census found that the optimal North Carolina Senate cluster that contains Caldwell County is a grouping of three districts spread across 17 counties along the western end of the state (see Figure 2).
The problem for Caldwell County is that it must share a Senate district with Catawba County (the county marked blue in Figure 2) since it is the only county in the cluster that shares a border with Catawba. Catawba County’s population of 160,610 is well short of the 198,348 minimum needed to form a Senate district on its own, so at least some of Caldwell County must be included with Catawba in a Senate district. The combined population of Catawba and Caldwell counties would be 241,262, more than the maximum allowed Senate district population of 219,227, meaning that some of Caldwell would have to be cut off and placed with the red district marked in Figure 2.
Haywood County in the far western part of North Carolina similarly must be divided between districts. All three districts in the cluster are safely Republican.
The bottom line is that there is no way to avoid splitting Caldwell County between North Carolina Senate districts.
Legislators will have some choice about which North Carolina House county cluster in which to put Caldwell County. A group of researchers led by Western Carolina University political science professor Christopher Cooper found two possible sets of county clusters in the northwestern corner of North Carolina.
In the first set (Figure 3), Caldwell would be in a two-district cluster with Alleghany, Ashe, and Watauga counties. The 87th District would consist of Caldwell and one or two precincts of Watauga, while most of Watauga would join Ashe and Alleghany in the 93rd District. It is unlikely that the division of Watauga would split any municipalities. Blowing Rock, a town partially located in both Watauga and Caldwell, could be united in a single district. Both seats would be solidly Republican.
In the second set (Figure 4), Caldwell would be in a two-district cluster with Alexander and Watauga counties. The 87th District would consist of Alexander and a little over half of Caldwell. A little under half of Caldwell would join Watauga in the 93rd District. Lenoir, Caldwell’s county seat and the largest municipality in the county, would likely be split. The 87th District would be safely Republican while the 93rd would be a somewhat competitive seat that leans Republican.
While the first set of county clusters would be less disruptive to communities than the second set, the difference in political outcomes means that we could see a fight in the General Assembly over which set to use.
Despite Caldwell County’s political clout in the General Assembly and the desire by its citizens that the county remains whole in the redistricting process, it will be divided between North Carolina Senate districts. It may also be divided between House districts. Similar constraints of law and geography will affect how legislators will draw state legislative maps all over North Carolina.