Federal judges just delivered an unprecedented blow to North Carolina’s gerrymandered districts

A panel of three federal judges has ruled that a North Carolina redistricting plan that has allowed Republicans to dominate in Congressional elections is unconstitutional and is the result of illegal partisan gerrymandering, reports the Charlotte Observer. 

This is not the first time that the drawing of Congressional districts in North Carolina has been challenged but today’s ruling makes clear that the plan drawn in 2016 by a special session of the Republican-controlled state legislature “had the effect of chilling the political speech and associational rights of individuals and entities that support non-Republican candidates.”

The judge’s decision was unprecedented in that it was the first time the courts have ruled against a map on partisan grounds.

“The ruling was the first time that a federal court had blocked a congressional map because the judges believed it to be a partisan gerrymander.”

The majority of the judges agreed with the premise of the lawsuit brought by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause.

“On its most fundamental level,” wrote the judges, “partisan gerrymandering violates the core principle of republican government…that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”

The majority found that the redistricting which gave North Carolina Republicans victories in 10 of 13 districts violated free speech of the challengers by weakening the voice of Democrats with whom they did not agree. It has also been used as a tool to give African Americans and other minorities little say in the government.

In some states, these cases are determined by complex statistical analysis because everyone pretends they are being fair, but that was not the case in North Carolina, where the majority was so dominant that it proudly walked all over the minority Democrats.

During the 2016 special legislative session where the districts were determined, Rep. David Lewis, a Republican who oversaw the states redrawing of the maps, said outright that the purpose was to give Republicans a large majority.

“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats,” said Lewis, “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with eleven Republicans and two Democrats.”

The judges also looked at statistical models that determine what the lawyers call the “efficiency gap,” which counts the number of votes wasted when districts are set up so their votes will not matter.

After the 2016 election, Republicans had 76.9 percent of the seats in the state’s thirteen congressional districts, although North Carolina voters had only cast 53.22 percent of votes for Republican candidates. 

That is a margin far wider than if it was just left to chance or historical standards.

The judges noted that the effect was to chill free speech and take away the rights of those who did not support Republican candidates. That led many voters to not bother to vote since they knew it was fixed.

“Because Democratic candidates were unlikely to prevail in districts drawn by the General Assembly to elect Republicans,” wrote the judges, “it made it extremely difficult for the North Carolina Democratic Party to raise funds and have resources and get the attention of the national congressional campaign committees and other lawful potential funders.”

Wayne Goodwin, chairman of the North Carolina Democratic Party, said the ruling was “a major victory for North Carolina and people across the state whose voices were silenced by Republican’s unconstitutional attempts to rig the system to their partisan advantage.”

“Republicans have shown time and time again they are more interested in drawing themselves into power than representing the best interest of their constituents,” adds Goodwin. “It’s time the General Assembly put partisanship aside and draw fair, non-partisan maps that give North Carolina voters a voice.”

That is yet to be seen. The judges kicked the process back to the same Republican-dominated legislature and ordered them to redraw the map to make it fair.

They were given until January 29 to bring the court a new map. The short time allowed is because soon after those candidates have to begin registering for the spring primaries.

Until 2010, North Carolina was always a Democratic state or more balanced, but since then Republicans have taken over and taken every advantage possible. They have made North Carolina one of the most conservative, most repressive, most undemocratic of states not just in party name, but in reality.

The court has challenged the legislature to do better but recent history suggests that the Republicans will not give up their advantage easily or soon. That is un-American but in recent years it has been very North Carolinian.

Benjamin Locke

Benjamin Locke is a retired college professor with an undergraduate degree in Industrial Labor and Relations from Cornell University and an MBA from the European School of Management.