A three-judge panel in North Carolina has struck down that state’s existing map of legislative districts, ruling that the maps represented an unacceptable partisan gerrymander designed to systematically advantage Republican candidates.
Republican leaders in the state have said that they do not intend to appeal the ruling, meaning that it will go into effect immediately. Under the ruling, the state legislature – still controlled by Republicans – will have two weeks to draw up new, fairer maps that must earn the approval of the state court.
Assuming the legislature can actually accomplish that task, the new maps will be in place for the 2020 state legislative elections. A new legislative map would significantly increase Democrats’ chances of winning a majority in the state legislature, an accomplishment that has mostly been out of their reach in this closely divided state due to Republican gerrymandering.
The Political State of Play in the Tar Heel State
The roots of Tuesday’s decision can be traced all the way back to 2008. That year, Democrats dominated the state’s elections, winning control of both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion. Democrats also flipped a Republican-controlled Senate seat. And most notably, Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win North Carolina since 1976.
Stung by these defeats, North Carolina Republicans worked to ensure they would never have to experience them again. Republicans seized control of the state legislature in 2011, giving them the right to draw up legislative and Congressional districts in the state’s post-census redistricting. After winning the governor’s office in 2012, Republicans possessed full control of the state government.
They used that control to entrench their power. Republicans in the state legislature drew both Congressional and legislative districts in a relentlessly partisan fashion, ensuring that they would have a decided advantage in these elections even though the state is closely divided between the two parties. In fact, the US Supreme Court ruled in 2017 that the state’s legislative districts represented an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The districts struck down Tuesday had been re-drawn to address those concerns.
But the districts were still gerrymandered along partisan grounds. In the 2018 legislative elections, Democrats won 50 percent of the vote in state Senate races but won only 42 percent of the seats. For the General Assembly, Democrats won 50.5 percent of the vote and won just 45 percent of the seats.
The Effects – and Limits – of the State Court’s Decision
The activist group Common Cause, which also brought the federal lawsuit that culminated in the US Supreme Court decision ruling that partisan gerrymandering cases were political questions and out of the judiciary’s hands, challenged the existing legislative districts in North Carolina court. The case was filed in state court, challenged only state legislative districts and alleged that the districts violated the state constitution, which meant that recent federal precedent on partisan gerrymandering did not apply.
A three-judge panel (two Democrats and one Republican) of the Wake County Superior Court issued an exhaustive 357-page opinion ruling that the existing legislative districts violated the state constitution and represented an illegal partisan gerrymander. The opinion included extensive analysis finding that Republican leaders had instructed their map-maker to “pack and crack” Democratic voters in the state – that is, stuffing as many Democratic voters as possible into a precious few safe Democratic seats and then spreading the remaining Democratic voters into safe Republican districts in such limited numbers that they couldn’t meaningfully influence the outcome of an election.
The court held that the legislative districts violated the state constitution’s free election clause and equal protection clause, as well as the guarantees of freedom of speech and assembly.
The court gave the state legislature two weeks to draw new maps – this means that the Republicans who drew the unconstitutional maps will once again have the opportunity to draw district boundaries. However, the court ordered the legislature to draw those maps using fair, non-partisan criteria and to do so in public hearings. In addition, the new maps must be approved by the court, and if the court isn’t satisfied with the legislature’s effort it will appoint a special master to re-draw the maps.
Republicans could have appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, but they were facing almost certain defeat in that venue (Democrats hold a 6-1 majority on the North Carolina Supreme Court). And the US Supreme Court generally does not have jurisdiction over state legal questions that don’t speak to the US Constitution.
As a result, the new maps should be in place for the 2020 legislative elections. And the stakes are high, as the legislators elected in 2020 will draw new districts after next year’s census.
To be clear, the court’s ruling affects only state legislative districts in North Carolina. The state’s congressional districts, which are gerrymandered to provide Republicans with a decisive advantage, will remain in place until 2021. And because it’s a state ruling, the court’s opinion will have no force outside North Carolina.
However, the Common Cause lawsuit and resulting decision could provide Democrats in other heavily gerrymandered states with a road map. If Democrats can win legal battles re-drawing state legislative districts, they’ll have a better chance of winning control of state legislatures in fair elections. And with control of these legislatures, Democrats can then begin re-drawing gerrymandered Congressional districts.