How Do You Actually Draw Fair Maps?

An activist recently asked if we could point her to a good article about how fair districts can be drawn. “I want to see gerrymandering ended,” she said, “but I don’t know enough about the right way to do it so it’s really fair.”

Not seeing anything that exactly fit the bill, we decided to write that article ourselves. So, how are fair maps drawn?

Well, there are two ways to look at it: The criteria and process used for drawing the maps. And, finally, the maps themselves.

Let’s start with the end result.

What would fairly drawn election maps look like?

However different they are from each other, fair maps would have several characteristics in common:

  1. Fair maps would preserve “communities of interest” – that is, commonsense community boundaries. Historical cohesiveness, geographical boundaries, shared interests,—these are some of the obvious ways that neighborhoods and communities define themselves and create a shared identity. A fair map respects those identities. An unfair map deliberately ignores them.

For example, a natural or physical boundary such as a river or a major highway would form part of the boundary of that community’s district. A neighborhood centered around a school would be kept intact. (One of the most absurd examples of violating this was the gerrymandered map of North Carolina’s Congressional District 11 a decade ago: Not only was a big chunk of the city of Asheville carved out and spliced onto District 10, the campus of Warren Wilson College in Buncombe County was split right down the middle.)

Identified communities of interest should also exclude political considerations. In other words, portions of that community should not be carved out according to party affiliation, voting history, or the like.

When communities of interest are ignored or even intentionally split up for partisan advantage, it weakens the ability of voters in those communities to elect representatives who will actually represent their needs. If a community dealing with a big polluter, for example, is split in gerrymandered maps, it would be difficult to impossible for voters in that community to elect someone who would hold the perpetrators accountable.

  1. Fair maps reflect the actual makeup of the voting population. The redistricting lingo for this is that they would follow the principles of Competitiveness and Proportionality.

Fair maps would be competitive. This characteristic is harder to define, but it’s the kind of thing most people recognize when they see it. In a very purple state like North Carolina, where roughly half the votes cast are for Republican candidates and about half are for Democratic candidates, we should see two things: (1) A pretty even split between the two parties among all the candidates elected, and (2) Districts that sometimes elect Democrats and sometimes elect Republicans. In heavily gerrymandered districts, you see very little of either.

Fair maps would reflect the statewide proportion of voter preferences. This is the principle of Proportionality, which can be defined  like this: The statewide proportion of districts whose voters favor each political party shall correspond closely to the statewide preferences of the voters. In other words, if half the votes cast statewide are for Republicans but they win three-fourths of the seats, the maps were obviously not drawn to be proportional to the actual preferences of voters.

When maps are drawn by non-partisan commissions, according to criteria that respect geographic integrity and communities of interest, and criteria that forbid incumbent protection and partisan advantage, you’ll usually end up with competitive maps.

  1. Fair maps are non-partisan. How is this possible? you may ask. There are actually very straightforward principles that come into play here. The relevant map-drawing criteria are called ‘No Incumbent Protection’ and ‘No Partisan Gerrymandering.’ And they can be stated very simply:

No Incumbent Protection: The place of residence of any incumbent or political candidate shall not be considered in the creation of a map.

No Partisan Gerrymandering: Districts shall not be drawn for the purpose of favoring or discriminating against an incumbent, political candidate, or political party.

  1. Fairly mapped districts respect counties and municipal boundaries. In other words, carving out Asheville from the rest of Buncombe County and tossing it into a completely different district – as was done with the 2010 Census Redistricting – is clearly not preserving existing boundaries.
  1. Fair maps would also reflect existing voting precincts. In redistricting lingo, the Voter Tabulation Districts (VTDs, or precincts) would not be split up. The current Joint Redistricting Committee adopted the vaguely worded guideline that “Voting districts should be split only when necessary,” without identifying when they might deem that necessary.

What kind of process yields fair maps?

That depends on Who is drawing the maps, When, and How.

Who – First of all, who is in charge? Gerrymanders happen when sitting lawmakers are allowed to draw maps to their advantage. So ideally, a non-partisan independent commission is who will be tasked with drawing maps. Unfortunately, without this provision having been enacted into law at the federal level – which would happen with passage of the For The People Act – we are at the mercy of the legislature. The NCGA Joint Redistricting Committee has sole power to draw maps under current North Carolina law.

When – Fair maps require citizen input. That means it’s crucial that we have ample time and opportunity for informed public comment. The timelines for the whole process should have this built in.

How – Fair maps will follow the map-drawing criteria listed above. The whole process will be open and transparent, and will have meaningful opportunities for public comment. We should have public comment before the maps are drawn, and we should have access to draft maps and revised maps in a way that allows ample opportunity for public comment. We should have public hearings in major rural and metropolitan areas throughout the state, with ample notice for both written and oral public comment. A truly transparent process must be followed, unlike the slippery movements and secret conversations the NCGA exhibited in 2019. *

An excellent summary of what the map-drawing process should include is outlined this letter from leading voting rights groups to NCGA leadership and Redistricting Committee members. The letter is also a great source for talking points when calling legislators, writing letters to the editor, and submitting public comments.

* From the voting rights coalition letter of August 2, 2021, to the Redistricting Committee: “In 2019, a court required the General Assembly to draw remedial maps in “full public view” and barred legislators from undertaking “any steps to draw or revise the new districts outside of public view.” Notwithstanding these requirements, there were several issues in 2019, including legislators and participants moving maps in and out of the meeting room during the redistricting process, holding conversations relevant to the redistricting process away from microphones, and failing to respond to public commentary. The public also experienced significant difficulty connecting to audio and video broadcasts that allowed for a detailed observation of the process. A truly transparent process must be used in 2021. Anything less will only serve to degrade public confidence in our state’s redistricting.”

What can we do now?

We must speak up at every step of the way to continue the fight for fair maps.

And when we speak up, it works!

Over 20 concerned citizens showed up in person to make public comments on the NC Joint Redistricting Committee’s proposed map-drawing criteria during the one public hearing on criteria Tuesday, August 10, and an additional 1,000 people submitted written comments through the NCGA online portal. Although the Committee adopted only one of the 12 amendments proposed by Democrats, the public comments were cited during the August 13 hearing, and – perhaps most importantly – the committee is taking notice of this high level of public input.

Public comments are part of the official record, and as such they provide strong support for voters’ actual wishes should the maps every be challenged in court.

Speaking out about these concerns also increases public awareness about the importance of fair maps – and of how unfair maps hurts communities and weakens individuals’ voting power. Write letters to the editor, and encourage others to do the same. Share information on Fair Maps with friends and neighbors, and ask them to speak out, too.

It’s now up to us to watch the Committee closely throughout the map-drawing process and challenge any proposed maps that violate the principles and characteristics or fair maps.


For more on Fair Maps, see Democracy NC’s Fair Maps project, the League of Women Voters of NC’s Fair Districts project, and All On The Line FAQs page and upcoming Trainings. We also have relevant trainings listed on our website calendar here.