In yet another turn of events in the decade-long saga that is gerrymandering in North Carolina, a panel of judges effectively overturned the state’s congressional districts in a case, challenging them as partisan gerrymanders. The same panel had previously ruled the state’s legislative districts unconstitutional, prompting a redraw by the legislature.
The same day, the judges also concluded the debate over the legislative districts by accepting the redrawn maps as fair. These maps were drawn in a highly publicized manner, with such ploys as a livestream of computer monitors hosting the maps and a lottery drawing to select the “base map” which would be modified to develop the final map.
Despite a few hiccups, such as the disclosure of forbidden political data to a few state house staffers, the final maps, especially the senate one, were drawn in as fair a process as can reasonably be expected from a political body. The state GOP should take pride in that process and employ it to redraw the congressional districts, avoiding a dragged-out lawsuit and granting our citizens more confidence in our votes being counted fairly.
The ruling is technically preliminary, meaning the trial hasn’t actually taken place yet, but given that the same panel unanimously ruled against the legislature a couple months ago, it’s unlikely to end differently. For that reason, the judges have offered to let the plaintiffs ask for a “summary judgement,” essentially a way to avoid a full trial.
The GOP has yet to signal whether it will fight the order, but shortly before the order, George Holding, the Republican representing the 2nd District, said he had held off on fundraising in anticipation that the lines might be overturned. His non-combative attitude indicates there might be little energy in his party to resist the ruling.
Even N.C. Senate President Phil Berger seemed resigned to the outcome, if in a decidedly less professional manner. He accused the judges of “deciding behind closed doors how many members of Congress from each party is acceptable,” a bold stance on such accounting considering one map drawer said he would “give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
If the new ruling goes through, it’s likely that Democrats will pick up a couple congressional seats — one GOP lawmaker predicted an 8-5 split would be most likely, compared to the current 10-3 delegation. Should such a delegation seem likely, it may invoke some criticism from Democrats, as the state legislative districts did, for giving an advantage to Republicans.
Unfortunately, based on state law, such an advantage would be tough to avoid. State law requires districts to follow county lines where possible, and it firmly enables incumbents to draw maps that avoid running two against each other. The first means that Democrats, who tend to concentrate in a few urban counties, have a structural disadvantage against the more geographically wide rural support of the GOP. In addition, since current incumbents are majority Republican, protecting them naturally results in more red-leaning districts.
That said, while Democrats have an uphill battle to a majority in either house, the new lines prevent Republicans from so easily winning supermajorities, and the state government is potentially up for grabs in 2020. If the legislature opts for a similar transparent process for congressional districts, 2020 could be the most competitive election North Carolina has seen in a decade.