Politics & Government

As Supreme Court takes up gerrymandering, NC politicians battle in the national media

North Carolina’s contorted history of congressional redistricting

Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.
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Federal judges recently ruled that Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered two North Carolina congressional districts by race. But redrawing districts to benefit the political party in power is nothing new and has been going on for years.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday on whether North Carolina has again violated its residents’ constitutional rights through gerrymandering.

And on Sunday and Monday, in the lead-up to the arguments in the case, some of North Carolina’s most influential politicians tried to sway national audiences in the court of public opinion.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post, taking the side of the challengers who say the maps used to elect North Carolina’s 13 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are unconstitutional. He wrote it together with Larry Hogan, a Republican, who is the governor of Maryland.

“We are governors from different parties with different views on a number of issues,” Cooper and Hogan wrote. “But on this we agree: Elections should be decided by the voters. Under the current system, politicians devise maps that make some votes count more than others. They rig the system with impunity.”

But not everyone agrees that partisan gerrymandering is a problem. The two Republican state lawmakers from North Carolina who oversaw the drawing of the lines being questioned Tuesday, Rep. David Lewis and Sen. Ralph Hise, defended their work in an op-ed published by The Atlantic.

Politicians have long been able to draw maps that purposefully disadvantage their political rivals, they wrote, and they argued that it ought to remain so.

“Federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have long held that political considerations are fair game, and maps produced on the basis of those considerations are perfectly legal,” they wrote.

They also said that in their defense, the map isn’t as good for Republicans as it could have been.

If they had “ignored the other traditional redistricting criteria, including compactness and contiguity,” they wrote, they probably could’ve drawn a map with 11 safe Republican districts, instead of 10, by packing Democratic voters into just two districts, instead of three.

Supreme Court oral arguments

The challengers, in this case Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, plan to argue that citizens’ First Amendment right to political expression has been infringed by politicians who have drawn districts to predetermine the outcome of the election.

Oral arguments in the North Carolina partisan gerrymandering case — Rucho v. Common Cause — will begin at 10 a.m. Arguments in a Maryland partisan gerrymanding case, Lamone v. Benisek, will follow. The North Carolina case is broader, but the cases are considered complementary. The court is expected to issue its decision in May or June.

The Supreme Court does not allow video or real-time audio of its arguments, though a transcript and audio recording will be available, likely by Tuesday afternoon.

If the court finds that partisan gerrymandering and the maps are unconstitutional, North Carolina will likely have to redraw the maps before the 2020 election. The maps could be allowed to stand, or the justices could send the case back to a lower court for further arguments.

Reducing political influence

No matter what happens in this case, which deals with congressional districts, it likely won’t affect a different partisan gerrymandering case that’s winding its way through state courts and making arguments based on violations of the state constitution, instead of the federal constitution.

That case is scheduled to go to trial in July, The News & Observer reported last week.

And regardless of the outcome of these two cases, bipartisan groups of anti-gerrymandering advocates have put forward two different proposals in the North Carolina General Assembly this year that, if passed, would lessen political influence in how the maps get drawn.

One proposal would create a new independent redistricting committee to draw the lines, instead of politicians. It’s based loosely on a model used in Iowa, the N&O has reported, although a number of other states use some method of independent redistricting committees and the bill’s sponsors have said they’d be open to considering some of those other methods if they’re more politically feasible here.

The other proposal is a constitutional amendment, which has high-profile backers including influential GOP donor Art Pope and former UNC System President Tom Ross.

If the General Assembly votes to put it on the ballot in 2020, and then voters approve of it, the amendment would allow the legislature to continue drawing maps, as it always has. But the amendment would restrict the types of political data lawmakers could consider when drawing maps, in addition to making other tweaks to de-politicize the redistricting process.

Republican Rep. Chuck McGrady, who is a main sponsor of both ideas, has said he thinks the constitutional amendment appeals more to some of his Republican colleagues because would be harder for Democrats to undo an amendment, as opposed to just a law, if Democrats take back control of the state legislature before the next round of redistricting in 2021.

“It doesn’t leave the problem of, ‘Yeah, we pass something, but then two or three years from now: Surprise, Democrats are in charge, and they change the law,’” McGrady previously told the N&O.

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