Under the Dome

Will third time be a charm for those who want NC Supreme Court to invalidate election maps?

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.

A challenge to election maps drawn in 2011 that has twice come before the N.C. Supreme Court will return for a third pass before a court that has shifted since its most recent review from a Republican to a Democratic majority.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday issued an order that sent a lawsuit filed by former Democratic state legislator Margaret Dickson for another review by North Carolina’s highest court.

The order tells the North Carolina justices to reconsider its 2015 decision upholding the maps in light of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week that found lawmakers relied too heavily on race when drawing congressional districts in 2011.

In light of that federal ruling, “our clients are hopeful that the N.C. Supreme Court will follow federal law and recognize these districts for what they are: unconstitutional racial gerrymanders,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represents plaintiffs in the case.

“The North Carolina Supreme Court should take action swiftly to require the immediate implementation of fair districts for all North Carolina voters,” Earls added in a statement.

It is not clear how quickly the state Supreme Court can schedule the case for a hearing or whether the federal ruling would lead to a different decision at the state level. If the N.C. justices take a different stand this time, it could lead to a redrawing of legislative districts this year and potentially call for elections to follow.

Challengers of the 2011 maps have been more successful in the federal courts than in the state Supreme Court. They successfully challenged the congressional maps in the case that led to last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision. A three-judge panel found the legislative districts to be racial gerrymanders as well, ordering new maps and 2017 elections that are on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to take the case.

States draw new election boundaries every 10 years after the U.S. Census shows population shifts, and that process often leads to accusations of political and racial gerrymanders.

Since the 2011 redistricting, at least half a dozen lawsuits challenging the congressional and legislative lines have stacked up in the courts.

Most of the cases include allegations of racial gerrymandering, but a couple filed last year include allegations of partisan gerrymandering.

The Dickson case, which led the way, includes racial gerrymandering allegations.

The lawsuit contends that black voters were packed into districts where they already had been electing candidates of their choice – largely Democratic candidates. That, the challengers contended, effectively limited minority voting power across the state.

A panel of three N.C. Superior Court judges ruled unanimously in July 2013 that although race was considered in the design of the districts, it was done to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

In 2011, North Carolina had to get “preclearance” from the U.S. Justice Department to make changes to voting districts in 40 counties where such sign-off was required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

But in the summer of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that section of the voting rights law – freeing North Carolina and eight other states, mostly in the South, to change election laws without advance federal approval.

Republicans point out that districts drawn in 2011 that were in counties where preclearance was necessary were approved by the Justice Department under the Obama administration. But the challengers counter that surrounding districts were shaped to limit the overall voting power of North Carolina’s black voters in legislative and congressional races.

The map challengers further argue that North Carolina has used questionable legislative districts through three election cycles and congressional districts in two, in part because of the previous state Supreme Court rulings.

“This is the second time the nation’s highest court has smacked down the N.C. Supreme Court and directed it to reconsider this redistricting ruling. This time around we are confident that we will prevail and that North Carolinians will finally get the fair and legal Congressional and legislative districts they deserve,” Isela Gutiérrez, associate research director at Democracy North Carolina, a voting rights organization that signed on to the challenge with Dickson and other North Carolina voters, said in a statement.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1