Driving south down Owen Drive in Fayetteville is a roadway experience much like any other in the city.
There are businesses and restaurants on either side of the road. There are homes tucked in neighborhoods off side streets.
Nothing apparently significant divides this community along Owen except a few lanes of traffic.
But come election time this upcoming November, this roadway will serve as a border between elected federal representatives and the people who vote for them.
The intersection of Owen and Village drives next to the Cape Fear Valley Medical Center splits North Carolina’s 9th and 7th U.S. Congressional Districts.
Everything immediately west of Owen and north of Village at the intersection is in the 9th, while the 7th is to the east and south, cutting Fayetteville and Cumberland County roughly in half. The split is significant in multiple ways, including that it divides up communities that support Fort Bragg, the most-populated military post in the United States.
This political barrier wasn’t chosen locally. It was decided dozens of miles north in Raleigh after a monthslong battle between the state legislature and the courts.
“People choose to draw a line through our community,” Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin said. “It increases confusion. It dilutes representation.”
Congressional district maps are typically redrawn once a decade, as redistricting occurs to account for new census data that is collected every 10 years.
In North Carolina, however, districts were redrawn three times from 2010-19, due to court cases that considered previous drawings to be cases of gerrymandering, a political practice committed by both Democrats and Republicans, that forms maps in a way that favors one political party over another. It has a long history in North Carolina, including in 1881 with the formation of Vance County to the northwest.
Two of the maps in the 2010s split Fayetteville. Those drawings, including the map for the 2022 election, split the city along Hay Street, a major downtown business corridor.
Statewide, the new maps are projected to be more evenly divided between the two parties with seven polled toward Republicans, six to Democrats and one toss-up.
But locally in Cumberland County, it’s a different story.
According to the latest voter registration data from Cumberland County, registered Democrats in the county outnumber Republicans by nearly 39,000.
Despite this, both the 7th and 9th districts are projected to go red, according to polling data analyzed by FiveThirtyEight.
“The dilution of our voice and our voting power,” Councilman Mario Benavente said. “There really isn’t any other word for it other than gerrymandering.”
Communities of interest
Jim Morris, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10630 in Hope Mills, went to vote in North Carolina’s primary election in May.
Much to his surprise and disappointment, he didn’t recognize the candidates on his ballot.
“None of the people that I thought I was going to vote for was on the ballot,” Morris said. “I wondered if I had gotten the correct ballot.”
Morris was accustomed to voting in the 8th Congressional District, as he did in 2020 when Cumberland County was in one district.
Now, Morris lives along the district border just inside the 7th Congressional District. Candidates that he was expecting in the 8th are now running in the 9th on the western side of Cumberland County.
“They split the area in half. I don’t understand why they had to do it that way,” he said. “A town should be in one district. A town shouldn’t have to (say), ‘Hey, I live on this side of the street. I’m on this side.’”
The confusion for Morris was the political process that played out in the months preceding the primary.
Due to new population data from the 2020 U.S. census, the Republican-controlled state legislature redrew the congressional maps in late 2021.
Those maps heavily favored Republicans, so anti-gerrymandering groups filed a lawsuit. After appeals, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in February that the districts were too partisan and ordered a redraw.
After the state legislature submitted another map, the Wake County Superior Court wasn’t satisfied and implemented its own interim map in March, about just two months before the state’s primary.
All parties to the case appealed, but the state Supreme Court did not grant a hearing.
Republican N.C. House Rep. John Szoka, who represents the area surrounding Hope Mills in southern Cumberland, has long advocated for the Sandhills region of southeastern North Carolina to have its own district revolving around the military installation of Fort Bragg and the surrounding area.
He was one of only two Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly to vote against the legislature’s second drawing of the maps. He was against the map cutting off portions of Fort Bragg in northwestern Cumberland.
He’s not a fan of splitting Fayetteville either.
“The community of interest around Fort Bragg … active duty who work there, civilian employees who work there, retirees who have a tie to it, and all the businesses that have business relationships,” Szoka said.
Aside from Charlotte and the Research Triangle surrounding Raleigh and Durham, he said he considers Fort Bragg to be the largest community of interest in the state.
“It should all be together,” Szoka said.
Asher Hildebrand, a researcher at Duke University who studies various aspects of U.S. democracy, said that – strictly from the perspective of partisan proportionality – the statewide congressional map for the upcoming election is probably the fairest in the history of the state.
This fairness sometimes requires splitting cities, he said.
“There are times when splitting a community might serve other interests that many voters agree with, for example, the interest in having an overall map that fairly reflects the partisan breakdown of the electorate,” Hildebrand said.
Some largely populated urban areas, like the Triangle and Charlotte, require a split due to the large number of people in the community. Congressional districts are required to have about 750,000 people in them.
But for Fayetteville, with a population of about 210,000, congressional division isn’t required.
Hildebrand said that the city’s political and municipal boundaries could have aligned while maintaining a similar level of partisan fairness statewide.
“There’s a long-standing, small-d democratic principle that, insofar as possible, municipal boundaries, existing political boundaries should be respected,” he said. “The idea is that people who live in a community like Fayetteville and have issues or interests that are aligned on a range of issues should have the opportunity to vote together in that in a legislative district.”
Fayetteville’s mayor said splitting the community makes it more difficult to achieve common policy goals on the federal level.
“As it relates to the city, it is easier for me to advocate and to express our needs to federal representatives if there’s one,” Colvin said.
Benavente said the division makes it more difficult for voters to voice concerns to representatives.
“Legislators can therefore be less responsive to (their) community, which sort of puts the onus back on the voter to say, ‘I’ve got to be that much more engaged. I got to be that much more organized. I’ve got to be that much louder with my voice because the rules have been made to make it difficult for me to be heard,’” Benavente said.
Future of NC congressional maps
Over the summer, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear a case, scheduled for next summer’s court session, that could allow for state legislatures to have more power in the redistricting process.
The case ties directly to North Carolina as the state’s two top Republican lawmakers, Tim Moore and Phil Berger, petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case following the legal battles with the state Supreme Court.
In the case, Moore and Berger are pushing a legal theory known as independent state legislature doctrine.
The legal theory is a narrow interpretation of constitutional law that gives the state legislature the sole power to write federal election law, with no involvement from other branches such as the state’s courts.
“It will only inflame partisan gerrymandering,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College.
“If one party gains power and wants to hold that power for a decade, if not longer, they can use the redrawing of districts to solidify and cement that control. … You’re going to get the kind of environment we see before us, if not worsened.”
Photos by Ben Sessoms, Carolina Public Press