Politics & Government

New maps ordered for NC 2020 congressional races, in win for Democrats

North Carolina’s 2020 congressional elections must happen under new maps, a panel of judges ruled Monday evening, saying that the current Republican-drawn maps are unfair to many voters.

The legislature must now redraw the state’s 13 U.S. House districts. The judge — two Democrats and one Republican from different parts of North Carolina — wrote that the maps show signs of “extreme partisan gerrymandering” which “is contrary to the fundamental right of North Carolina citizens to have elections conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the people.”

Monday’s ruling, a preliminary injunction, said the state may not hold any elections for Congress using the current maps passed in 2016. Those maps replaced a different set of maps from 2011, also drawn by the Republican-led legislature, which were struck down as unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. The judges ruled that if there aren’t new maps in time for the primary elections on March 3 then they could delay all or some of the primaries until later in 2020.

Candidate filing deadlines for the 2020 primaries are in December, so the legislature has just weeks to act if it wants to avoid delaying the elections — unless lawmakers decide to fight the decision instead, which they can also do.

But after losing a separate lawsuit last month over the state legislative lines, GOP lawmakers decided not to appeal that ruling and were able to meet the court’s two-week deadline to draw new maps. They did so with unprecedented transparency, as ordered by the court, and many of the new legislative maps passed without much political controversy, although some did attract criticism from Democrats.

Legislative maps go forward

The challengers in the legislative case had asked for the judges to throw out several of the maps the state House had created, citing some of the Democratic concerns that had been raised as well as other concerns. However, the judges did not grant that request. On Monday, at the same time they ruled against the congressional maps, the judges also issued a separate ruling that the new legislative maps pass muster.

The judges wrote that “in contrast to the unconstitutional 2017 Enacted Maps, the remedial redistricting process was conducted in full public view” and that the legislature did not appear to otherwise violate any of the rules the court had put in place.

Senate Republicans reacted to the ruling on the legislative maps with a statement quoting Sen. Warren Daniel of Burke County. “The bipartisan process that we used to create new districts was the most transparent in history,” Daniel said. “Every effort was made to work together with our Democratic colleagues to create fair, nonpartisan, and court-compliant districts. I am glad that the court recognized that and approved the new Senate and House districts. I hope we can now finally put this long, absurd, partisan court battle behind us.”

Common Cause NC, an anti-gerrymandering group, was involved in the lawsuit against the legislative lines, which was called Common Cause v. Lewis. Monday night, Common Cause executive director Bob Phillips said it was largely due to that lawsuit that the judges ruled the way they did against the congressional maps, too.

Both lawsuits used the same basic argument: that the maps had been drawn to purposefully dilute the voting power of Democrats, and to inflate the voting power of Republicans, in such an egregious manner that they violated the North Carolina Constitution’s guarantee of “free elections.”

“As the landmark ruling in Common Cause v. Lewis made clear last month, partisan gerrymandering violates the constitutional rights of North Carolina voters and it must end,” Phillips said.

“For nearly a decade, Republicans have forced the people of North Carolina to vote in districts that were manipulated for their own partisan advantage,” Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general, said in a statement. Holder is part of the effort to challenge the congressional lines. “Now — finally — the era of Republican gerrymandering in the state is coming to an end.”

Senate leader Phil Berger issued a statement of his own Monday night. “With judges deciding behind closed doors how many Members of Congress from each party is acceptable, judicial elections have become the most consequential in America,” Berger said.

In North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers the Wake County suburbs as well as more rural areas to the south, east and north, Republican Rep. George Holding told The News & Observer last week that he hadn’t been raising money locally because he assumed a ruling like this would happen and change some of the areas he represents.

“It’s pretty clear the state courts are going to rule the same way they ruled with the legislative districts,” Holding said, after campaign finance reports showed he raised just $75 from within his district over the last three months. “I feel fairly certain we will have new districts to be running in.”

Holding’s best-funded Democratic challenger, Scott Cooper, said Monday the ruling adds an element of uncertainty to the race but that he’s ready for whatever shape the district ultimately takes.

“As I look at this, maybe it’s an easier district,” he said Monday. “Cool. Great. But I’m not deterred either way.”

Diverging from Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to strike down these same congressional maps earlier this summer, despite similar arguments about partisan gerrymandering. That ruling said federal courts don’t have the authority to weigh in on partisan gerrymandering, unlike racial gerrymandering.

But the Supreme Court also said the matter could be decided in Congress or in individual states, as the state court judges noted in their new ruling Monday.

“Indeed, as the Supreme Court of the United States recently explained, partisan gerrymandering claims are not ‘condemn[ed] ... to echo in the void,’ because although the federal courthouse doors may be closed, ‘state constitutions can provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply,’” the judges wrote.

The Supreme Court ruling was 5-4, with the five more conservative judges voting to stay away from gerrymandering and the four more liberal judges wanting to strike down the maps of North Carolina as well as Maryland. Unlike North Carolina, the Maryland maps favored Democrats. In state court, the rulings have been unanimous from the three-judge panel, which has two Democrats and one Republican.

The three-judge panel that overturned the congressional maps is the same one that overturned the General Assembly maps last month — Democrats Paul Ridgeway of Wake County and Alma Hinton of Halifax County, and Republican Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County.

They suggested that the legislature use a similar process as it just employed to redraw the legislative maps. They did not set a strict deadline, although they noted that the 2020 primaries are fast-approaching and that they will delay the primaries until later in the year, if there aren’t new maps in time.

“The court respectfully urges the General Assembly to adopt an expeditious process, as it did in response to (the legislative maps ruling),” the judges wrote.

Washington correspondent Brian Murphy contributed.

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.

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.