What will State House and Senate Districts Look Like? Here’s our Best Guess

Our first look at legislative redistricting explained how North Carolina’s counties must be grouped together to draw State House and Senate districts. As we noted, the county grouping formula is part of the court-ordered Stephenson Criteria – a set of guidelines that ensure legislative districts comply with the centuries-old Whole County Provision in our state constitution.    

In this post, we try to forecast how the districts themselves will shake out based on which counties will be divided when the maps are drawn. A couple of notes before we dive in:

First, this is our best evaluation, and it is based exclusively on publicly available data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the State Board of Elections. We plugged the data into our political databases and mapping software to help create this analysis.

Second, when forecasting possible districts within a county grouping, there are two main – and, as you will see, powerful – constraints the Stephenson Criteria impose on map drawers: 1) drawers must limit the number of “county traversals” – that’s official lawyer and PhD speak for what us less enlightened folk call “county splits.” And 2) the fewer divided counties, the better. 

Here’s a quick illustration of the second point, using the Lee-Harnett-Sampson-Duplin-Johnston-Nash County grouping in the current (2019) State Senate map as an example.  Map 1 has two county splits and divides two counties – Harnett and Johnston. While Map 2 also has two county splits, it only divides one county – Johnston.  Map 2 has fewer divided counties, so it better complies with the state constitution’s Whole County Provision as outlined in the Stephenson Criteria.

One County Split
Two County Split

As you read through this document, keep this partisan performance by precinct map handy.  It will give you a general idea of the political leanings of the different geographic areas in each county grouping.

2020 Biden vs. Trump by Precinct

But bear in mind precincts vary dramatically in population density, ranging from as small as a couple hundred voters to as large as more than 10,000 voters. So, the relative amount of red and blue area in a county doesn’t always mirror the county’s electoral performance.  

The map below shows our projected State Senate map based on the optimal State Senate grouping options. The General Assembly will need to divide the gray shaded counties to finalize the redistricting plan, while the rest of the counties will remain whole.  The whole county groupings are evaluated easily using the partisan election performance data found in this spreadsheet.  

As you can see, the Stephenson Criteria almost completely predetermine what the State Senate map will look like before legislators get going on the redistricting process.  The major remaining decisions confronting the Senate Redistricting Committee include:

  1. Which county grouping to use in Northeastern North Carolina.
  2. Which county grouping to choose in Southeastern North Carolina.
  3. How to subdivide the major metro counties – Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford and Forsyth – into districts.
  4. How to divide Cumberland County to make a district with Moore County that best complies with the Redistricting Committee’s criteria.
  5. How to divide Randolph County.

The Redistricting Committee adopted detailed criteria that govern the decisions legislators will make during their map drawing process, and our analysis indicates that if these criteria are followed few of the outstanding decisions are likely to have an impact on the number of seats each party could win.

Our projected State Senate map has between 23 and 25 seats favoring the GOP, 17 to 19 seats favoring Democrats and six to 10 competitive seats that will determine control of the chamber.

The State House has much more work ahead of it than its Senate counterparts.

The map below shows our projected State House map based on the optimal State House grouping options resulting from following the Stephenson Criteria. The General Assembly will need to decide how to divide the gray shaded counties to finalize the redistricting plan, while the rest of the counties will remain whole.  The whole county groupings are analyzed easily using the partisan election performance data found in this spreadsheet.

As you can tell by the sea of gray shaded counties that will be divided when districts are drawn, while the Stephenson Criteria predetermined much of the State House map, compared to the State Senate map legislators have more decisions to make to finalize the State House redistricting plan. Among the decisions the Redistricting Committee still must make, these key remaining choices will have the most impact on final district configurations:

  1. Which county groupings to use in Northeastern North Carolina and how to divide that grouping, which will result in a double bunking of incumbents.
  2. Which county grouping to choose in Southeastern North Carolina.
  3. Which county grouping to use in Northwestern North Carolina.
  4. How to subdivide the largest counties – Wake, Mecklenburg, Guilford, Forsyth, Cumberland, Buncombe, New Hanover, Pitt and Alamance – into districts.
  5. How to divide the nine-county grouping that runs from the mountains to Gaston County and which legislators in that grouping will be double bunked.
  6. How to divide the five-county grouping in the central part of the state that includes Randolph and Moore Counties and which incumbents in this group end up double-bunked.
  7. How to divide the Wayne and Duplin grouping that will result in a double bunking.
  8. How to divide the Nash and Wilson grouping.

It is important to note that we project the base Stephenson Criteria grouping map plus anything resembling a fair draw in urban counties will give the Republican Party a base of about 60 seats in the new State House redistricting plan.  This means the Democratic Party would need to win virtually every other seat to have a chance of controlling the chamber.

This is your warning.  You’ve already read everything any sane political observer needs to know about our projected General Assembly redistricting maps.  The rest of this post is the redistricting equivalent of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  We are getting ready to walk through 9 circles of redistricting Hell, 9 rings of redistricting Purgatory and the 9 heavenly bodies of redistricting Paradise – all in an effort to project a final House and Senate map by evaluating various options for dividing multi-district county groupings, assessing possible outcomes and then evaluating the potential political consequences of those decisions.  Caveat Emptor.

Again, the map above shows our projected State Senate map based on the optimal county grouping options. The General Assembly will need to divide the gray shaded counties to finalize the redistricting plan, while the rest of the counties will remain whole.  Let’s review these Senate county groupings to get a better understanding of how the final map might look.

Option 1
Option 2

One of the first decisions members of the Senate Redistricting Committee must make doesn’t involve dividing counties.  Legislators will need to decide which grouping configuration to use in Northeastern North Carolina.  Neither grouping option is very compact, though option 2 scores slightly better on commonly used compactness measurements.  If this were the 1800s, option 1 might be the clear winner because the Roanoke River was a difficult-to-cross natural barrier that makes up the dividing line between much of the two districts, but bridges being what they are today…  Politically, option 1 results in two competitive districts while option 2 results in one competitive district and one district that leans Republican.  Both maps double bunk incumbent GOP Senators Sanderson (Pamlico) and Steinberg (Chowan) while leaving incumbent Democratic Senator Bazemore (Bertie) in her own district.  We initially thought option 2 would be the most likely outcome but after reviewing the compactness scores more carefully and reviewing how option 2 separates communities of interest, like Dare and Currituck Counties and Perquimans and Pasquotank Counties, we are less confident projecting which grouping configuration the committee will prefer.

In the following groupings, all gray shaded counties must be divided in order to draw State Senate districts that meet the population and county division requirements outlined in the Stephenson Criteria.

We start our county division projections out West. This grouping covers 17 counties in Western North Carolina and will include three State Senate districts.  The first district will be a strong GOP seat that includes the seven furthest western (shaded pink) counties and part of Haywood County. Haywood will have to be divided because the western seven counties are too small to form a district without Haywood, but all of Haywood County makes the district too big.  Sen. Kevin Corbin, from Macon County, is the only Senator who lives in this likely district. The second district in this group will be a strong GOP district centered in Catawba County (shaded teal). Catawba is nearly large enough on its own to form a Senate district, but since it’s not quite large enough, Caldwell County will be divided and part of it will pair with Catawba to form a district.  Sen. Dean Proctor, from Catawba County, is the only Senator who currently lives in this district. The third seat in this group will be a strong GOP district that includes portions of both Caldwell and Haywood counties and the six northwestern border counties.  Senators Ralph Hise (Mitchell) and Deanna Ballard (Watauga) both live in this district.

This two-seat grouping likely will include one strong GOP seat with all of Burke and McDowell counties and a portion of Eastern Buncombe County.  Sen. Warren Daniel, from Burke County, is the only Senator who currently lives in the district. The rest of Buncombe County will form another strong Democratic district on its own. Sen. Julie Mayfield is the only Senator who lives in Buncombe County.

This two-seat grouping will form two strong GOP seats: one that includes all of Cleveland and Lincoln counties and a small portion of Gaston County, and another with the remainder of Gaston.  Sen. Ted Alexander, from Cleveland County, is the only Senator who lives in Cleveland or Lincoln. Sen. Kathy Harrington is the only Senator in Gaston County.

Six Senate seats will come from this grouping – five completely within Mecklenburg County and another comprised of Iredell County and a few Northern Mecklenburg precincts. The Iredell-North Mecklenburg seat will be a strong Republican district that’s likely to double bunk Senators Vickie Sawyer (Iredell) and Natasha Marcus (Mecklenburg).  It is hard to guess how the five seats within Mecklenburg County will be drawn. But based on the election performance of the county, we project four of the seats to favor Democrats and one seat to be competitive.  Currently, Sens. Jeff Jackson (not seeking re-election), Joyce Waddell, Mujtaba Mohammed and DeAndrea Salvador live in the area of the county likely to be divided into those five districts.  This means Mecklenburg County will end up with at least two fresh faces in the Senate in 2023.

This is a two-seat grouping that likely will include one strong Democratic seat, based entirely in Forsyth County, and one seat that favors Republicans and includes all of Stokes County and the rest of Forsyth.  Because the legislative Redistricting Committee has adopted incumbency as a criterion for constructing districts, legislators should be able to draw seats that do not double bunk Sen. Paul Lowe, who lives in Winston-Salem, and Sen. Joyce Krawiec, who lives in Kernersville.  

This three-seat grouping likely will include two strong Democratic seats based entirely in Guilford County and one seat that favors Republicans and includes all of Rockingham County and the rest of Guilford.  Because the Redistricting Committee has adopted incumbency as a criterion for constructing districts, legislators should be able to draw seats that do not double bunk Senators Gladys Robinson and Michael Garrett, both of whom live in Guilford County.  Sen. Phil Berger lives in and represents Rockingham County, which will be the base of the GOP-leaning district in this grouping.

This grouping covers seven counties in the Piedmont and will include four State Senate districts.  The first district will be a strong GOP seat that includes all of Alamance County and a portion of Randolph County.  Senator Amy Galey represents Alamance County. It is possible Sen. Dave Craven, who lives in Asheboro in Randolph County, will wind up in the portion of Randolph that is paired with Alamance. But it is more likely that Craven ends up in a GOP district with Sen. Tom McInnis. That district would include the portion of Randolph County that is not paired with Alamance, all of Montgomery County, all of Richmond County (where McInnis lives) all of Anson County and part of Eastern Union County.  The third district in this group will be a GOP seat that includes the rest of Union County and a small portion of Cabarrus County.  Senator Todd Johnson currently lives in this likely district.  The fourth district in this group will be a competitive district covering the remainder of Cabarrus County, where Sen. Paul Newton lives.

This two-seat grouping will produce two strong Democratic seats. One seat will be entirely within Durham County, while the other will be made up of the remainder of Durham County and all of Chatham County.  Senators Mike Woodard and Natalie Murdock both live in Durham County but will probably be able to avoid a double bunking.

This grouping is especially interesting because Moore and Cumberland County connect at such a narrow point through Fort Bragg in Cumberland County.  This makes it very difficult to draw compact districts.  Overall, the two-county grouping is competitive politically, with a very slight Democratic lean.  Because Moore County is so heavily Republican and will be kept whole, we project one of the seats will be a GOP-leaning seat that includes all of Moore County and a portion of Cumberland County. If that turns out to be the case, the other seat will almost certainly be a Democratic-leaning seat comprised of the rest of Cumberland County.  With Kirk deViere the only Senator who lives in the new county grouping, there will be a new member elected in one of the districts.  Previously, Ben Clark has claimed residence in Cumberland County but currently lives in Hoke County and would be double-bunked with Danny Britt in the Hoke, Robeson, and Scotland district.

Outside of Granville County being kept whole and making up about a fifth of one of the six districts in this grouping, it is difficult to project how these seats will be drawn.   Based on the election performance of Wake County – it votes about 65%-35% for Democrats – we project four of the seats will favor Democrats and two of the seats could be competitive for both parties. But there is wide variance in the possible district construction in this grouping. Senators Wiley Nickel, Jay Chaudhuri, Dan Blue, Sydney Batch and Sarah Crawford live in Wake County, so regardless of how the districts are drawn this grouping will send at least one new member to the Senate after the 2022 election.

There are two different possible county groupings in Southeastern North Carolina. Both groupings will result in a likely GOP Senate district that includes Lee, Harnett and a small portion of Sampson County. Sen. Jim Burgin is the only Senator in this potential district. A second GOP district will take the remainder of the counties in Southeastern North Carolina down to Pender County (in one grouping combination, the district would include a small piece of New Hanover County instead of Bladen County.)  Sen. Brent Jackson resides in Sampson County and should end up in this district. Columbus and Brunswick County will either be grouped with Bladen County to form a three-county, single-member grouping, or in a three-county, two-member grouping that include a small portion of New Hanover County. In both scenarios, Sen. Bill Rabon is the only current member of the Senate who lives in what would be a new strong GOP district.  Finally, both options for grouping these counties would leave the majority of New Hanover County, including Sen. Michael Lee, in a very competitive swing district.

At the end of the process, we project the State Senate map will have between 23 and 25 likely GOP seats, 17 to 19 likely Democratic seats and six to 10 competitive seats that will determine control of the chamber.

Your pilots are expecting turbulence, so please return to your seats and fasten your seat belts… we’re moving on to the House.

There are two types of county division decisions House Redistricting Committee members will need to make in their new map in order to draw State House districts that meet the population and county division requirements outlined in the Stephenson Criteria.  One set of districts we will tackle are the groups where Redistricting Committee members will need to choose which of the shaded counties in a grouping to divide. The second set of groupings we review include shaded counties that must be divided to form districts.

We will start with Northwestern North Carolina, where the House Redistricting Committee faces a redistricting decision triple-whammy where first they will need to pick which grouping to use then, depending on the grouping choice, they’ll have a choice of which county to divide in one grouping and how to divide a county they must split in another grouping. 

Either grouping arrangement will produce two groups with two likely GOP districts where incumbent House members live in each district.  The interesting thing here will be which of the senior majority party members – Rep. Sarah Stevens (Surry), Rep. Jeffrey Elmore (Wilkes) or Rep. Destin Hall (Caldwell) – get to keep their county whole and which has their county divided.  We project the committee will choose option one, which keeps Caldwell and Surry Counties whole, while dividing Wilkes between a district with Surry County and a district with Alexander County.  The other grouping would make a district out of all of Ashe and Alleghany counties plus a piece of Watauga County, and the final district out of the remaining part of Watauga County and all of Caldwell County.  If the committee feels this grouping option would result in the double bunking of Rep. Ray Pickett and Rep. Destin Hall, it could choose to use the other option.

In the following groupings, legislators will need to choose which of the shaded counties to divide.

Unlike in most county groupings, legislators have lots of choices – seven of the eight counties (the gray, grid-shaded counties) could be chosen to be the one divided county – to draw two districts in the Northeastern grouping.  Mathematically, only Currituck County, where Rep. Hanig lives, cannot be divided to create the two districts, though this does not mean Rep. Hanig won’t end up double bunked.

This grouping will have two districts made up of one whole county and one divided county.  However, legislators can choose to keep any of two the counties whole and divide the third county to make the two districts.  We suspect incumbent Reps. Winslow and Garrison will prevail on their colleagues to keep their home counties of Franklin and Vance whole and divide Granville to create one leaning GOP district and one leaning Democratic district.   

In the following groupings, all shaded counties must be divided.

Republicans drew what is commonly referred to as a “Dummymander” in Buncombe County in 2011.  The draw was intended to protect two Republican incumbents who lived in the county but ultimately spread conservative voters out across the districts in a way that allowed three Democrats to win.  We forecast that the redrawing of this three-seat grouping will include two districts that favor a Democrat and one seat where both parties are competitive.  It will be interesting to see which of the incumbent Democrats ends up in the competitive seat.  Based on the incumbents’ residences, our guess is the competitive seat may be an open seat and two of the Democrats will end up double bunked in one of the Democratic-leaning seats.

This grouping covers nine counties in western North Carolina and is currently represented by eight incumbents. The new grouping will have only seven State House districts, leaving one double-bunking.  As you can see in the map, there are a number of different ways to divide the counties, but it seems likely that Rep. Moffitt (Henderson), Rep. Green (McDowell), Rep. Torbett (Gaston) and Rep. Bumgardner (Gaston) who live on the edges of the grouping would end up in their own districts while the members in the middle of the district were most likely to be double bunked.  If the rumors of a new Congressional district in this part of the state are true, it could alleviate the double bunking issue.

Iredell County is a bit too big, and Catawba is a little too small, to have two house seats entirely within the counties.  So, both counties will be divided, with one of the Catawba-based seats picking up a precinct or two in Iredell County to balance the population.  There are four Republican incumbents in the group, and all should find themselves in solid GOP seats when the new House map is finished.

This four-county grouping is home to five GOP House members and five districts – four of which likely lean GOP, with a fifth seat in Cabarrus County competitive for both parties.  In this case, two of the five members – Julia Howard (Davie) and Lee Zachary (Yadkin) – will end up double bunked because the Stephenson Criteria require Yadkin and Davie counties to be kept whole in forming a district with a small piece of Rowan County.  Of the remaining four seats in the grouping, one will be entirely in Rowan County, two will be in Cabarrus County and one will be split between the two counties.  It will be interesting to see if the open seat ends up as the competitive seat in Cabarrus County or one of the leaning GOP districts.

Mecklenburg is currently home to 12 State House members – 11 Democrats and one Republican.  The county added a district in this cycle of redistricting.  The one Republican – Rep. John Bradford from northern Mecklenburg – is likely to continue to live in a competitive district but one that is smaller and more Republican than his current seat.  We believe at least two other House seats in Mecklenburg County – probably one in the Mint Hill area and one in South Charlotte – should be competitive for both parties.  How the rest of the county is divided up and which one of the 11 incumbent Democrats who represent the county will end up double bunked or in a competitive district will be major decisions to watch during the process.  Keep in mind: there will probably be at least one likely Democratic State Senate seat open that could help Democratic House members find a redistricting plan that keeps them all in Democratic friendly seats.

Because of its size, Union County will be divided into two seats within the county and a third seat including the eastern portion of Union and all of Anson County.  All three GOP incumbents will likely land in GOP-leaning seats. 

This grouping is home to five incumbents and will have five districts in the new map.  The grouping is likely to produce a Republican district that keeps Stokes whole and takes in a piece of Forsyth County and two solid Democratic seats within the core of Forsyth County that protect the two Democratic incumbents.  The big question in this grouping: will the two remaining districts in Forsyth County, both of which are currently held by GOP incumbents who live in the county (Rep. Lambeth and Rep. Zenger) wind up competitive for both parties, or will one end up leaning Democratic and the other lean toward the GOP?  At this point, we project the latter scenario, which makes this grouping one of the few places in the House where Democrats may have a pickup opportunity.

Guilford County is one of the easiest groups in the map to project.  It currently has six seats, and it will have six districts in the new map.  The seats have been approved by the courts so they will likely be adjusted slightly for population changes.  We believe the current division of seats – four Democrats and two Republicans – will likely remain, though we anticipate the four Democratic seats will be solidly Democratic while one of the current GOP seats will become competitive.  This is another county where Democrats really need to find a way to get an extra seat to have a chance at a majority in the House.  Republicans, on the other hand, could be better served over the decade to have one seat that is strongly Republican instead of two seats that Democrats could win in an election that favors Democrats.

This is one of the most Republican counties in the state.  It currently has two GOP House members and will have two in the new map.

This five-county grouping is one of the most interesting in the new map.  There are six incumbents in this grouping but there will only be five districts.  The Stephenson Criteria require Lee, Chatham and Richmond Counties to remain whole.  Randoph County will have one district entirely within the county. We project Democratic Leader Reives will have all of Chatham County and a handful of Randoph County precincts that are among the most Republican precincts (voting 80%+ for Trump) in the entire state.  This will make his district quite competitive.  Moore County will no longer have its own district and instead will be split into three districts. One of those districts will pair with Lee County, one with Richmond County and one with the remaining third piece of Randoph County.  It is hard to say which two legislators will end up double bunked.

Alamance County, increasingly competitive politically as people who work but can’t find housing in Orange County flock to Mebane, currently has a GOP member and a Democratic member.  We expect that split to continue, with one leaning GOP district and one leaning Democratic district coming out of the new map.

Orange County and Caswell County will make up two districts – one wholly in Orange County the other comprised of all of Caswell and the remainder of Orange County.  Representatives Insko and Meyer should be quite safe from GOP challenges in these heavily Democratic districts.

This grouping will produce three strong Democratic districts in Durham and one competitive district that includes Northern Durham County and Person County.  This is another pickup opportunity for Democrats, as GOP Rep. Larry Yarborough (Person) is likely to get a tough district.  Incumbent Democratic Reps. Austin, Morey and Hawkins will continue running in friendly territory. 

The new Harnett and Johnston County grouping will have one seat wholly in Harnett County, one seat divided between Harnett and Johnston County and two Johnston County seats.  Incumbent Reps. White (Johnston), Strickland (Johnston) and Penny (Harnett), plus a newcomer, should all end up with seats favoring the GOP.  This group will likely give the GOP its best pickup opportunity.

Wake is currently home to 11 State House members – 10 Democrats and one Republican.  The county added two districts in this cycle of redistricting.  We believe at least three seats – including GOP incumbent Erin Pare’s – should allow Republicans to compete with Democrats. The other 10 House seats in Wake County should lean Democratic and provide the 10 incumbent Democrats with hospitable electoral territory.

The Robeson County grouping will include two districts. One will be made up of Columbus County and part of Robeson – likely the Lumberton area – and the other a heavily Lumbee district comprised of the remaining rural Robeson County precincts.  Both districts likely will be 60%+ Trump districts and give the GOP an excellent pickup opportunity.  Current State Rep. Charles Graham appears to have seen the writing on the wall and already announced he’ll run for Congress instead of seeking re-election to the State House. 

This two-county grouping will include two districts – one entirely in Nash County the other comprised of all of Wilson and a piece of Nash County.  Democratic Representatives Galliard and Cooper-Suggs currently represent the district, and while the new grouping will have two seats and the incumbents will not be double-bunked, we expect both districts to be very competitive. The Wilson district with a handful of Nash precincts will be close to a 50/50 toss up. It is hard to see a path to a Democratic majority in the House without winning both of these conservative rural seats.

Cumberland County was a whole county in the old map and it’s a whole county in the new map, with four current districts and four current members. Like Guilford, it is an urban county that will likely see only minor adjustments to accommodate population changes.  The current map has two competitive seats and two Democratic seats.  Like in Guilford, we could see that same breakdown or a redraw that creates a stronger Republican district, a lean Democratic seat and two solid Democratic seats. 

Duplin and Sampson County form a two-district grouping with three incumbents.  One of the districts will be all of Sampson and part of Wayne and the other district will be made up of the rest of Wayne County.  Both districts should lean GOP.  There are two Republicans – Rep. Bell (Wayne) and Rep. Dixon (Duplin) – in the district and one Democrat.  Rep. Smith (Wayne), the Democrat, is likely to end up double bunked with one of the incumbent Republicans in a GOP-leaning district.

Pitt County, like Alamance County, is a very competitive county.  Currently Pitt is represented by two Democratic incumbents, but Pitt will likely have one leaning Democratic district and one GOP-leaning district in the new map. This represents another Republican Party pickup opportunity, and whether Reps. Smith and Farkas end up double bunked or in different districts bears watching. 

The Craven-Carteret grouping will include two districts. One will be a strong GOP district that Rep. McElraft calls home, made up of all of Carteret and a precinct or two in Craven. The other strong GOP district includes most of Craven County, where Rep. Steve Tyson lives. 

This grouping will include two Republican leaning districts entirely within Onslow County and one seat comprising all of Pender and the remainder of Onslow County.  All three districts will be leaning GOP seats and should re-elect incumbent Reps. Cleveland (Onslow), Shepard (Onslow) and Smith (Pender.) 

The final grouping, New Hanover and Brunswick Counties, will have four districts: one entirely in Brunswick, two entirely in New Hanover and one district that includes pieces of both.  Currently the group is represented by three Republicans and one Democrat.  We project the new map will include two strong GOP seats, one leaning GOP seat and one Democratic seat, giving all four incumbents opportunities to be re-elected.

The bottom line in the House is Republicans will start with a floor close to the 60 seats needed for a majority. Democrats face a tough task, starting with about 40 solid seats and needing to win all of the approximately 20 competitive seats to have a shot at retaking the chamber.

You’ve made it! Remember, you cannot get this hour of your life back.