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BIG CITY: Redrawn districts complicate the primary

By Kirk Ross
If you’re not registered to vote and you should be, go get registered and then come back and read this column.

This is the year of the watershed primary in North Carolina. And the year this state will decide whether to enshrine intolerance in our state constitution. You need to show up.

The May 8 ballot comes during a presidential cycle and after redistricting shook up the legislative races — state and national — in a big way. It’s full of firsts.

This is the first ballot since 1980 without the name Joe Hackney on it. Sen. Bob Atwater’s out, too. And Rep. Bill Faison is making a hard push for governor, so his seat is open.

The personalities aren’t the only thing changing. Our local House districts now cover vastly different territories, and this is the first time we’ll vote in the new districts. Given there’s a couple of lawsuits and other challenges to the way the redistricting was done, it could be the first and the last election cycle for these particular lines.

But for now at least, the changes are law, and they’re significant. The southern part of southern Orange County is no longer joined with Chatham County in what was Hackney’s old district. Instead, Orange County is carved up into two House districts — the 56th and 50th — with the 56th, currently represented by Verla Insko, comprising most of Chapel Hill and Carrboro and a notch that runs up the N.C. 86 corridor and takes in the center of Hillsborough. Think Idaho, only more lanky.

From a local’s point of view, the districts don’t make sense. But then if we’d drawn them, we wouldn’t have been intent on double-bunking two veteran Democrats and peeling off Chatham County.

The narrow notch up to Hillsborough is narrower than 4 miles wide in most places. It’s western edge runs almost due north, bisects the Dairyland region and cuts through communities all the way north. Once you’ve crossed the big valley on N.C. 54 just outside of Carrboro, you’ve switched representation.

It doesn’t make much more sense further north, with the 50th district boxing in Hillsborough. The eastern side of the district boundary is much more jagged and meandering below Hillsborough running along Ephesus Church Road, the uppermost bank of Eastwood Lake and right up Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard just north of Horace Williams Airport.

There ought to be a law against such shenanigans, or at least some shame in it.

On the state Senate side the shift was a little more predictable, probably due to court rulings over past redistrictings that upheld the state constitution’s “whole county” provision. The new Senate District 23 rejoins Chatham and Orange, which are represented by Atwater and Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, respectively, into one district. The easternmost edge of the 23rd district runs along the Orange-Durham boundary, which means the folks in the Durham portion of Chapel Hill will share a senator with the folks in Person and Caswell counties.

The change in the boundaries may not seem to matter much right now, but over time, especially if the maps hold for a full decade, they’ll shape how we’re represented and who represents us. The House districts seem to have a distinct urban/rural split, and the center of gravity of the Senate district is now the U.S. 15-501 corridor.

The reason things like this are important is that we are very likely to come out of this election with a very closely divided legislature.

Right now the smart money is on the Senate remaining in GOP control but more evenly divided. It’s possible high turnout and low ratings could flip the House back to Democratic control. Either way, votes on legislation and veto overrides will tighten. When margins are close and each individual legislator’s vote is more critical, our clout as citizens and our ability to influence legislation increases. If you caught any of what happened in the last session, it’s pretty clear this is a time to be engaged.

In the weeks ahead this column will review the local ballot and the dynamics in the primaries as well as that awful referendum. If you want to register to vote or find out what district you’re in, pay a visit to the Orange County Board of Elections website at www.co.orange.nc.us/elect/

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