Last week, a federal three-judge panel struck down North Carolina’s congressional district maps. Tuesday’s ruling said the congressional maps drawn by state lawmakers in 2016 were unconstitutional and ordered new maps drawn by Jan. 24.
The unanimous ruling marked the second instance maps drawn after the 2010 Census have been tossed out by a three-judge panel. A 2016 ruling said two majority black districts originally drawn in 2011 relied too heavily on race. The map redrawn as a remedy sparked a new round of lawsuits.
Last week’s ruling did not focus on race, but on raw partisanship. It marked the first time a federal court has stepped in to block partisan gerrymandering, an issue the courts generally have steered clear of.
The 191-page opinion written by Judge James Wynn, a Democratic appointee, says “Rather than seeking to advance any democratic or constitutional interest, the state legislator responsible for drawing the 2016 Plan said he drew the map to advantage Republican candidates because he ‘think[s] electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.’ But that is not a choice the Constitution allows legislative map drawers to make.”
The representative in question is David Lewis, R-Harnett, who also said the 2016 map was designed to elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
Western Carolina political science professor and department chair Christopher Cooper said “This is the most politically consequential redistricting ruling in NC since Reno v. Shaw—the 1993 ruling that limited the degree to which states could use race when redistricting. Unlike previous cases out of NC, however, this case is significant because it is about partisanship rather than race. In brief, in this case, the court ruled that the NC General Assembly violated the equal protection clause of the constitution when they virtually guaranteed the Republicans would have a massive advantage over the Democrats.’’
The numbers do reflect the advantage. Registration figures from earlier this month showed 2.6 million voters registered with the Democratic Party, 2.09 million unaffiliated and 2.06 million registered Republican. Despite that relative balance North Carolina’s congressional delegation contains 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats.
With the redrawn maps, Republicans won 49 percent of state’s congressional votes in 2012 and took nine of 13 congressional seats. In 2014 the party took 54 percent of the congressional vote and landed 10 seats.
“This case joins recent cases out of Wisconsin and Maryland—both of which are currently before the Supreme Court,’’ said Cooper, “and both of which have held that their respective states went too far in securing partisan majorities for the ruling parties.’’
“Although no one knows exactly what will happen, it is almost certain that the Republicans will appeal this decision,’’ Cooper said, “and ask that the Supreme Court consider North Carolina’s decision alongside Maryland and Wisconsin. If the court is amenable, these trio of cases may settle, once and for all, whether partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution.’’
State Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse defended the GOP maps, saying in a news release that the districts “are fair and were drawn following all known rules, and existing case law.”
Woodhouse is correct on that point, as the courts have not deemed political gerrymandering as a constitutional violation.
At least, not yet. That could change.
U.S. District Judge William L. Osteen Jr. concurred with the three-judge panel’s decision but partially dissented regarding legal analysis. However, the George W. Bush appointee wrote, “In my opinion, Article I, Sections 2 and 4 (of the U.S. Constitution) set a clear limit on unconstitutional political gerrymandering. When the legislature, through its redistricting plan, controls the outcome of the election, whether as a result of partisan consideration or another factor, the plan is unconstitutional.”
Cooper said the impact of the outcome of this case could be very significant for Western North Carolina.
“If this case holds, our members of Congress will run in different districts than those they currently represent,’’ Cooper said. “Although it’s far too early to know what the new districts will look like, it’s almost certain that they will be more favorable to the Democrats than our current districts.
“And nowhere will this be more apparent than right here in WNC, where our congressional districts (the 10th and 11th) sit on perhaps the largest gerrymandering fault line in American politics.’’
Mapmakers took the 11th District, which includes Sylva, and removed a large chunk of liberal Asheville to the conservative 10th District in new maps after 2010. That changed the 11th, traditionally perhaps the most competitive seat in North Carolina, to a seat with a 14-point GOP advantage.
If Asheville is made whole again, the math would revert and the district could be up for grabs again.
Arguments in the Wisconsin case were heard by the court in October; in December the court agreed to hear the Maryland case.
On Thursday the chairman of the Senate’s extra session redistricting committee filed a notice of appeal of the North Carolina decision to the Supreme Court.
The shape of the decisions to come will shape the future of North Carolina politics.
Jim Buchanan is editor of The Sylva Herald.