Politics & Government

How lawmakers reshaped NC districts, using midnight work sessions and lottery balls

After a state court ruled the district maps used to elect members of the North Carolina General Assembly were unconstitutional, the legislature had a whirlwind two weeks trying to fix the problems.

Depending on the day, there were accusations of rule-breaking or public declarations of newfound bipartisan trust. There also were more lighthearted developments, like a Twitter account pretending to be the lottery ball machine that helped draw the new maps.

Much of the work happened at odd hours, as politicians and their staffers worked from early in the morning until sometimes as late as 1 a.m during seven days in September to draw and approve new maps.

States are allowed to redraw their districts only after the U.S. Census every 10 years, unless a court orders new lines. And because North Carolina has lost so many court cases over unconstitutional gerrymandering — both recently under Republican control as well as in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s under Democratic control — lawmakers here have done this plenty of times.

But never has it been as transparent as it was just now. The judges who threw out the maps made sure of that.

The judges wrote that they found claims Republican lawmakers made about previous redistricting efforts to be “highly improbable,” so they required that this one happen in full view of the public.

So with the meetings livestreaming online, members of the general public as well as local and national news media milled about with unprecedented access to a sensitive process that normally happens behind close doors.

The judges now have the new maps in front of them, and will decide whether they pass muster. If so, North Carolinians will use these new maps only for the 2020 elections before another redistricting period begins in 2021 with updated Census data. If the judges don’t like the new maps, they can have them redrawn again, this time by an outside expert instead of by politicians.

Here’s a timeline of how it all happened.

July 15-26

A trial is held in Raleigh over the maps, with Republican lawmakers defending their work against complaints from the N.C. Democratic Party and the anti-gerrymandering group Common Cause North Carolina.

Republicans are hampered in the trial after their key expert witness admitted that some of his testimony had been wrong, which leads the judges to disregard much of what he said.

The trial also shines a light on how involved politicians here are in redistricting — and how advocates for changing the process believe their best hope is the courts, not the legislature.

“There has been no meaningful opportunity to pass redistricting reform at the General Assembly,” Bob Phillips, the head of Common Cause NC, says at the start of the trial. “I’ve been at this for 20 years.”

Sept. 3

After mulling the evidence for a couple weeks, the trial’s judges (two Democrats and one Republican) rule against the legislature and throw out the maps.

The judges rule that the maps had been drawn to give Republicans such an exaggerated advantage in elections that they violate a part of the North Carolina Constitution that requires “free elections.” The judges also look back to precedent set in cases from 1875 and 1915, writing: “The North Carolina Supreme Court has long and consistently held that ‘our government is founded on the will of the people,’ that ‘their will is expressed by the ballot,’ and ‘the object of all elections is to ascertain, fairly and truthfully the will of the people.’”

They require some, but not all, of the 120 House districts and 50 Senate districts to be redrawn without the use of political data like in the past.

Republicans say they won’t appeal and will get to work to meet the Sept. 18 deadline.

Sept. 5-6

Hurricane Dorian hits North Carolina, which legislators later blame for a delay in getting started on the new maps.

Sept. 9

The legislature gets to work as redistricting committees in the House and Senate begin the debate over whether to start from scratch or not.

The Republicans in charge of both committees — Rep. David Lewis and Sen. Ralph Hise — both decide not to start from scratch. Instead they start with maps that an expert witness, Jowei Chen, a University of Michigan associate professor of political science, drew for Common Cause and the Democratic Party as part of the trial. They reason that the judges won’t think it’s biased for Republicans to choose maps that were used against them in court as a baseline for the new maps.

Republican Sen. Warren Daniel says, “Our goal here is to make every amendment a consensus amendment. We want this to be a bipartisan effort.”

That will turn out to mostly be the case for the Senate maps, but not the House maps.

The House almost immediately hits a snag. Outside private lawyers for Republican legislators email the entire House redistricting committee, plus legislative staffers helping with the process, files that contain partisan political data for the maps the lawmakers chose as their baseline maps.

Since the judges had banned the legislature from looking at exactly that kind of data, Democrats and challengers’ attorneys question whether the court order has been violated.

Sept. 10

While the House tries to figure out how to handle the emails, the Senate keeps chugging along.

Leaders there decide to pick at random from among a handful of the expert witness’s maps. They call up officials at the North Carolina Education Lottery and ask for one of the machines that blows ping-pong balls around to pick lotto numbers on TV.

Within hours, lottery employees wearing gloves arrive toting all the necessary equipment — including the ping-pong balls usually kept in specialized storage at a state-run lab to ensure uniformity.

Almost immediately, someone starts a Twitter account featuring an anthropomorphized version of the machine. Going by the name @LotteryOverlord, it proclaimed itself “New Supreme Ruler of N.C. Decider of many fates” and frequently responds to people questioning the use of the real-life lottery machine.

Later, in the House, Democrats try to stop the use of the outside expert’s maps. But Lewis promises neither he nor any staff looked at the partisan data that his lawyers had emailed the day before, and Republicans shoot down Democrats’ efforts to go in a different direction for picking the base maps.

Sept. 11-13

In the middle of everything, a surprise budget veto override vote in the House on Sept. 11 — which made national news after Democrats claimed Republicans tricked them into not showing up — throws a pall of suspicion over the separate redistricting process.

Meanwhile, the House decides to follow the Senate’s lead and use a lottery machine to randomly pick new maps. But after one of the random maps turns out to be the same as the unconstitutional map, they are faced with the decision of whether to call the lottery officials back, potentially leading to an hours-long wait.

Fayetteville Republican Rep. John Szoka speaks up. He says he has a master’s degree that focused heavily on statistics and recommends that somebody just Google a random number generator website. That would be just as reliably random as using a lottery machine, he says. So they do that.

Over the course of these three days, Wednesday through Friday, the House and Senate make tweaks to the base maps they picked. While the court told them not to use political data, they are allowed to protect incumbent lawmakers from being “double-bunked” or placed in a single district together.

Both the House and the Senate fix nearly all the instances of double-bunking.

However, some politicians and outside observers alike question whether all of the changes made were really necessary to fix the double-bunkings, or if some changes may have been done for political purposes. While lawmakers were banned from looking at political data, many know their areas well enough to know which areas lean more heavily Republican or Democratic.

One of the few double-bunkings that lawmakers didn’t fix was in north Raleigh, where Republican Sen. John Alexander would be in the same district as Democratic Sen. Jay Chaudhuri.

Alexander, who is the only Republican left in the Wake County delegation, tries several ways to redraw the lines to put himself back into a district that more closely resembles his current district, which is made up of Franklin County and a part of northern Wake County that includes the neighborhoods around several country clubs. But he is unsuccessful. On Sept. 12 he announces that he would not run for re-election in 2020, but he doesn’t connect his decision to the maps.

The Senate decides to break for the weekend without voting, but the House decides to vote on Friday. After no one from the public shows up to speak at a hastily announced public hearing, though, Republican leaders said they will have another public hearing Monday and might consider making changes based on comments then.

The House then votes Friday afternoon to pass the maps. Democrats object, to no avail, citing the lack of public input as well as concerns over Eastern North Carolina and a specific group of new district lines they say were drawn with politics in mind.

Sept. 16

Dozens of people show up to the public hearing Monday at noon. Most are local, and there’s a mix of political opinions represented.

A large contingent, mostly Republicans, also have driven to Raleigh from Columbus County in southeastern North Carolina. They object to the same new lines that Democrats had objected to Friday. But they are less concerned about gerrymandering and more concerned about local Republican Rep. Brenden Jones, a Columbus County native, losing much of the county in the redrawn maps.

But Republican lawmakers decide not to change the maps in that part of the state.

After the hearing ends, the Senate passes its own maps. Most Democrats vote for the maps, although some in the more progressive wing of the party oppose them, saying they don’t think politicians should be drawing political maps in the first place.

Sept. 17

Having already passed their own versions of the maps, the House and Senate gave final approval to one another’s maps.

The votes are once again mostly along party lines.

Sept. 18

Outside experts from around the country tell The News & Observer about their analyses of the new maps. Different experts ran different types of political simulations.

All agree that while the new maps are less biased against Democrats than the old maps were, it will still be an uphill battle for Democrats to win a majority of seats at the state legislature in 2020.

For more state government news, listen to Domecast, the politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer

Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.
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