Each year, Civitas Action issues the North Carolina Freedom Rankings. The rankings score members of the General Assembly based on key votes selected to reflect the legislators’ ideological commitments.

The purpose of the North Carolina Freedom Rankings is to “inform the public, in as unbiased a method as possible, exactly where individual legislators stand on the ideological spectrum from liberal to conservative.”

The scores reward legislators for voting to preserve or increase freedom in the state, which is the keystone of conservatism. Freedom Rankings are scored on a scale of one to 100. High scores represent votes to preserve or increase freedom in the state and are considered synonymous with a conservative philosophy. Low or moderate scores on the Freedom Rankings represent less of a commitment to conservative policies and more support for moderate and liberal policies. In the last two sessions, legislators have been notified before their vote on a bill that it will be scored whenever possible

Yearly rankings and scores for individual members are available online. These can be a valuable resource for voters to learn more about the ideological stance of their elected representatives.

The distribution of scores across members of each chamber tells us about the ideological leanings of the General Assembly as a whole. This article is the first in a series that will explore some of the key findings from NC Freedom Rankings, going back to 2012. Use the interactive infographic below to further explore the ideological composition of the North Carolina House, Senate, and entire General Assembly.

Distribution Trends: Reemerging Polarization

The scores indicate that the General Assembly was relatively polarized in 2012. That was followed by a period in which the distribution of member rankings became much less divided. More recently, ideological division has reemerged.

In 2012 and 2013, the scores reveal a clear ideological divide that falls mostly along party lines. There were very few “moderates” in those years. Most legislators tended to cluster between 30 and 40 percent for the progressive members or between 85 and 95 percent for the conservative members.

The 2014 scores are also polarized, but the entire distribution shifts to the left. The two distinct peaks in the distribution occur around 14 percent and 60 percent

The scores take on a single-peak distribution in 2015 and 2016. Instead of dividing into ideological camps, legislators from the two parties converged at a single point in those years. In 2015, the distribution centers around 46 percent, which is surprisingly left-leaning considering Republicans held supermajorities of both chambers that year. The next year, the distribution’s peak is at 71 percent. Party crossover also occurred in those two years, with some Democrats scoring higher than some Republicans and vice versa. These results are especially unexpected given the hyper-partisan climate of the presidential and gubernatorial elections going on during that time.

The 2017 results reveal a fascinating trend when the rankings are broken down by chamber. The General Assembly as a whole was clearly polarized, as the scores reveal, but there is a divide within the right-most segment of the distribution. This represents the difference between the House and Senate. The House’s most common scoring was 69 percent, which was the score for 30 representatives. The Senate scored significantly more conservatively at its peak, with 24 senators scoring 89 percent.

The 2018 results favor the ideological divide of five years ago. There are two separate ideological peaks across the distribution, with the conservative peak at 90 percent and the liberal peak at 40 percent.

It is not surprising that the General Assembly often has two distinct ideological groupings. North Carolina, like the United States as a whole, has a political system dominated by two political parties that largely differentiate themselves along a liberal-conservative ideological divide.

But the results of 2015 and 2016 display that members of the General Assembly may be being pulled to the middle in some cases. This is somewhat expected for a traditionally “purple” state. Elected officials may feel pressure from media or more liberal segments of their constituencies to shift to the left on certain votes. Such shifts undermine the conservative principles that defend the freedoms of all North Carolinians.

Which body of the General Assembly is more conservative, the House or the Senate? We will explore the answer in the next article in the series.

Civitas Action is a 501(c)(4) non-profit that educates and informs North Carolinians on policy issues and the actions of their elected officials.