Do you know what the “ideal” electoral district is within the City of Greensboro, NC?
No? I didn’t either, until I read Steven Sherman’s abstract, Redistricting 2010 City Council Districts, Greensboro, NC. This abstract gave me insight on the myriad of criteria that make up an “ideal” district. Sherman’s abstract may not be the best source of information, but, in general, it answered my questions as to the process. Hopefully, it will answer your questions, too, as we watch what’s going on within the Greensboro City Council in selecting those who will take a stab at redistricting the city. It is vitally important that we understand what they should do, and whether or not they fail to do it.
Go here for Sherman’s abstract: https://proceedings.esri.com/library/userconf/proc01/professional/papers/pap1069/p1069.htm.
Sherman noted that the first thing about an “ideal” size is to ensure that at the municipal level, the “districts [are] substantially equal in population.” They don’t have to be exactly equal. In 2010, the City of Greensboro had a population of approximately 269,000. The population of the city was approximately 299,035 as of April 2020. (Go here: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/greensborocitynorthcarolina.) As we await the 2021 census results, it could be higher or lower.
Creating districts over an approximately equal population ensures that each person's vote counts the same” –
“The legal basis for this is the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution…For non-Congressional districts, the accepted standard is a maximum population variance of no more than 10 percent.”
Sherman instructs us to do this to obtain the “ideal” district size:
“Divide the total number of districts into the total new population. This gives you the population count of the "ideal" district. Then calculate the percentage that your most populous district is above that ideal size. Next calculate the percentage that your least populous district is below the ideal size. Add these two percentages together (ignoring signs) and you have your plan's variance. For example, you have a city of 100,000 people with five districts. Your ideal district should consist of 20,000 people. Your largest district contains 22,000 people, a difference of 10% above the ideal. Your smallest district contains 18,000 people, a difference of 10% below the ideal. Your plan variance is 20%. You failed the test.”
Sherman also points out that the “10% variance rule is not statutory, it is court derived and based on years of case law going back to the US Supreme Court decision of Reynolds v. Sims in 1964.” Please note, however, lawyer Caroline Mackie, with the Poyner Spruill law firm in Raleigh stated that North Carolina follows an even more stringent standard based on the North Carolina Supreme Court’s 2002 Stevenson v. Bartlett decision. The ruling set a requirement of no more than 5 percent deviation, plus or minus, from ideal district size.
“In forming new legislative districts, any deviation from the ideal population for a legislative district shall be at or within plus or minus five percent for purposes of compliance with federal “one-person, one-vote” requirements “.
(See Ashley Stephenson, et. al. v. Gary Bartlett, et. al., Supreme Court of North Carolina, No. 94PA02, Filed 30 April 2002, at page 43.)
As it stands currently, the five districts making up the City of Greensboro vary in their ideal size, as follows:
Variance Above or Below the “Ideal” Population
(See John Hammer, City Council Districts Barely Out of Compliance with Ideal, Rhino Times (September 1, 2021.)
On the surface, only District 2 appears out of compliance as it is more than 5%. Yet, based on Sherman’s approach of adding the highest and the lowest percentages, all of the districts appear to be out of compliance, as they range from 7.43% to 8.24%! Again, using Sherman’s approach, and using the 2010 population number of 269,000, each district should be approximately 53,800 in population and should be no more than 2.5% out of variance from the ideal. Only District 4 is technically in compliance; all of the other Districts are out of variance!
An odd note here: The law firm Parker Poe has been hired to direct the Greensboro redistricting process. According to one of their attorneys, La-Deidre Matthews, “only one district—District 2—is “just barely out of compliance.” (John Hammer, id.) This could mean either of two things:
- Parker Poe does not intend to follow Sherman’s abstract for determining ideal Districts, or
- Parker Poe does not know about Sherman’s abstract.
Should we be worried?
Other criteria that factor in to the makeup of a district, referred to as “traditional redistricting criteria”, include:
- Compactness. Quoting from Sherman’s abstract –
“…unlike population variance, there is no commonly accepted single measure of compactness that seemed to apply to Greensboro. The geography of the city is essentially that of a circle with the existing districts dividing the city into a five-spoke wheel. Most of the compactness measures have been developed for testing Congressional districts, which can be prone to meandering across vast stretches of a state. Given the geographic confines of a municipality, such measures tend to be overly complex.”
(See Sherman’s abstract for how he and others evaluated and applied “compactness” to the 2012 redistricting plan.)
- Contiguity. Sherman’s abstract provides that –
“[a]ll of the geographic areas of a district should connect to one another. However, in some places, satellite annexations have created "islands" that, while part of the city, are not geographically connected to the core city. This was handled in one of two ways:
- First, it could be that an "island" is part of a voter precinct that is itself connected to the rest of the city. In cases such as these, we required that the "island" follow the balance of its precinct into whatever district the overall precinct was assigned.
- A second situation would arise where the "island" was part of a precinct and no areas of that precinct were connected to the City's core. In such cases, these islands were assigned to the closest, nearly adjacent, district.”
- Respect for Political Subdivisions. “This criterion translates best to districting efforts that hope to preserve the integrity of smaller political units within a larger body. For example, preserving county or municipal boundaries when redistricting state legislative seats. At a municipal level we applied this principle to voter precincts. In North Carolina, precincts are the smallest geographic unit of voter registration and administration. In practice this goal supported several other goals: a) the census population counts would be released by precinct; b) voter registration statistics are organized by precinct; and, c) administration of an election organized around something other than precincts would be difficult to administer and very confusing for voters.”
(Please read the Stevenson v. Bartlett case, wherein the Court addressed the division of counties to achieve a redistricting plan, which the Court found to be illegal in this case.)
- Respect for Communities of Interest. According to Sherman –
“… the goal is to group people with like interests together so that an elected representative can articulate their views. In Greensboro, we looked to neighborhoods as the best indicator of like interests. Over time, the city has defined 124 neighborhoods. To the extent possible, we avoided splitting neighborhoods between districts.”
- Maintaining District Cores. Also, according to Sherman –
“… districts should be drawn in such a way as to preserve the core of existing districts. Development of redistricting scenarios frequently began by modifying the existing plan in such a way to minimize the number of voter precincts that were shifted from one district to another.”
- Maintaining Constituent Relationships. “…[D]istricts should be drawn in such a way as to avoid situations where incumbents would be in contests with each other.”
- Race is Permissible in Determining Redistricting. And, finally, according to Sherman –
“There are two relevant parts of the Voting Rights Act that redistricting staff must consider. The first of these, Section 2, applies to the entire country and prohibits states or any of their political subdivisions from taking any action that would deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race or color or because a person is a member of a language minority group. The thrust of Section 2 is to prevent district plans where either too few (fracturing) or too many (packing) members of a minority group are placed into a given district. The other provision of the Act is Section 5 which requires that pre-clearance be secured from the Department of Justice, or the courts, before putting electoral changes into place. These provisions only cover selected areas of the Country and include much of the Southeast. As far as I can determine, Greensboro is not “covered” by Section 5. Essentially, redistricting plans will not be pre-cleared if the proposed plan exhibits, "retrogression" -- leaving members of a minority group worse off than they were under the current plan.”
(See Sherman’s Abstract.)
The Citizens’ Redistricting Committee was established by the City Council on August 31, 2021. The Committee will have until November 19, 2021 to submit its recommendations.
The following seven entities were asked to make recommendations as to who—two black males, one black woman, two white women, and one white male—should serve on the Citizens’ Redistricting Committee:
- The Greensboro International Advisory Committee
- The League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad,
- The Greensboro Neighborhood Congress,
- The Greensboro Chapter of the NAACP,
- The George C. Simkins Jr. Political Action Committee,
- The Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, and
- The Triad Real Estate and Building Industry Coalition (TREBIC)
The final numbers and list of entities making their recommendations as to the members were not achieved with some controversy. It remains to be seen whether this make-up of committee members and organizations survive.
As we watch the Redistricting Committee do its job, just know that we have a better understanding of how the process works or should work. If Sherman’s variance method has been debunked and is not ideal for determining the ideal district, please let me know.
I hope this is of value!