After a North Carolina legislative map was sent for legal review due to allegations of partisan manipulation, courts ruled that the districts drawn corresponded with gerrymandering and that the Republican legislature was therefore in violation of the state constitution. The maps were thrown out by the court and must be redrawn.
As of Sept. 3, Republicans have expressed that they will comply with the unanimous panel ruling. They are unlikely to appeal the decision, and even if it was appealed, the North Carolina Supreme Court would likely uphold the current ruling, which is also virtually protected from U.S. Supreme Court review. The likelihood that the 2020 election cycle will take place under fair and approved maps is strong, but that could spell trouble for the long-standing conservative rule in the state.
The case, referred to as Common Cause v. Lewis, has been widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive judicial opinions written on partisan gerrymandering. The three-judge panel of the Wake County Superior Court that issued the opinion had an unprecedented admittance to the large quantity of information left by Thomas Hoefeller, the gerrymandering expert for the North Carolina GOP.
Hoefeller is partially responsible for the House and Senate maps in place currently, and after his death, his daughter released his materials to Common Cause, which is the organization that recently sued in an attempt to have the maps struck down. The materials were provided to the court by Common Cause and were implicated in the ruling that the Republican Party has long been in violation of gerrymandering statutes.
The legislative maps in place at the moment were drawn in 2017, which was after the United States Supreme Court ruled that the previous maps constituted unlawful racial gerrymandering. According to the materials provided by Hoefeller’s daughter, Hoefeller was given election data by the Republican Party and instructed to defend their supermajority.
Through election data analysis, he drew a map that divided cities, towns, and even neighborhoods to create as many reliably GOP districts as possible. He used the mapping to cram as many Democrats into as few surefire liberal districts as possible, then redistributed the remaining Democrats into more heavily conservative districts.
According to a test conducted in court by trial experts, the maps drawn by Hoefeller were more favorable to the Republican Party than 99.99 percent of maps generated by an algorithm that used nonpartisan redistricting components. Hoefeller constructed a “partisanship score” which indicated the districts maximally favored Republicans, and his system managed to preserve the Republican supermajority even when Democrats won the majority of state votes.
In Rucho v. Common Cause, decided in June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal courts could not rule on gerrymandering cases due to the fact that they are “beyond the competence of the federal courts.” This case virtually suggested that state courts were equipped to provide protections and rulings on partisan gerrymandering based on their state’s constitutional clauses and that federal courts have no authority to review state court decisions because they do not implicate federal-level legislation.
The Wake County Superior Court relied on their ability to rule on the state-level gerrymandering case, and the panel, comprised of two Democrats and one Republican, found that the extreme partisan gerrymandering was in violation of three clauses of the North Carolina State Constitution.
First, the court’s opinion stated that the gerrymandering struck at the free elections clause, which asserts that “elections must be conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the people.”
The court reported that “elections are not free when partisan actors have tainted future elections by specifically and systematically designing the contours of the election districts for partisan purposes and a desire to preserve power.”
Second, the maps were found in violation of the equal protection clause, which is regarded as providing more voting rights protections than its federal counterpart. Referring to Hoefeller’s intent to severely dilute the number of Democratic votes, the court said that “there is nothing ‘equal’ about the ‘voting power’ of Democratic voters when they have a vastly less realistic chance of winning a majority in either chamber.”
Third, the court found the party in violation of the freedom of speech and expression clause, in which voting is referred to as an act of expression. They noted that “voting for the candidate of one’s choice and associating with the political party of one’s choice are core means of political expression” and that “banding together with like-minded citizens in a political party is a form of protected association [as is] expenditure of funds in support of candidates.”
Hoefeller’s maps were ruled as “viewpoint discrimination” against Democrats and as “burden[ing] their speech by making their votes less effective.” Court opinion also stated that Hoefeller “deliberately minimized the effectiveness of the votes of citizens with whom [the Republican Party] disagrees.”
The Wake County Superior Court has given the General Assembly two weeks to draw new maps, to be competed “at public hearings, with any relevant computer screen visible to legislators and public observers.” If they are unable to do so, the court is able to appoint a specialist to draw satisfactory maps.
Common Cause v. Lewis has proven to be a victory for voting rights activists and has illustrated the ease with which courts are able to determine when a violation of voting rights has occurred. Republican agreement to comply with the ruling makes sense; victory should they choose to appeal would be unlikely. The Sept. 3 ruling has increased the likelihood of a more free and fair elections for the 2020 cycle.