North Carolina’s contorted history of congressional redistricting
Morton Lurie is a Raleigh resident who describes himself as a conservative Republican.
On Monday, he was one of the North Carolina voters standing outside a federal courthouse in Greensboro, criticizing a map drawn in 2016 that has given Republicans a 10 to 3 edge in Congress.
Though it can be difficult to keep up with all the redistricting lawsuits filed this decade in North Carolina, Lurie is one of the challengers of maps adopted by the Republican-led legislature last year to correct two of the 13 congressional districts found by federal judges to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. Lurie objects to districts that are essentially safe seats for one party or another.
“The House of Representatives is that part of our government designed to be sensitive to the interests and will of voters spread across the country,” Lurie told media during a break in a trial that started Monday in his lawsuit.
For all but two of the 30 years that Lurie has lived in Raleigh, he has been in a congressional district that elected Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill.
Lurie recalled the 1994 elections when Republicans gained both houses of Congress and former police chief Fred Heineman beat Price during the so-called “Republican revolution” during the era of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”
“During the next campaign,” Lurie said, “Price was everywhere talking with voters.”
Lurie said he encountered Price at a Harris Teeter grocery store during that time and spoke with him for nearly 15 minutes on issues of importance to him.
Since then, Price has won re-election by wide margins, with his closest race in 2010 when he bested his Republican challenger with 56 percent of the vote.
“It seems to me that we get the best representation by congressional districts that are reasonably competitive,” Lurie said.
The trial that started in Greensboro on Monday is one of three major cases in the country that tests the breadth to which state lawmakers can draw congressional and legislative districts for partisan advantage.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Gill v. Whitford, which challenges the Wisconsin legislative district plan that heavily favors Republicans.
Partisan tests in 3 states
A case out of Maryland challenges a congressional plan that favors Democrats.
“Partisan gerrymandering is as old as America,” said Jennifer Bremer, the League of Women Voters of North Carolina’s statewide coordinator for fair elections. “Patrick Henry drew the granddaddy of all gerrymanders to keep James Madison out of the very first Congress. Fortunately, he didn't succeed. But if he’d had access to the mountains of data and powerful computer programs that drive today’s gerrymandering, it could have been another story. The poisoned fruit of all this manipulation is rising dysfunction, mistrust and public policies that don’t reflect the will of the people.”
The partisan gerrymander lawsuits filed by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause in North Carolina stemmed from maps adopted in 2016 during a special legislative session.
During that session, Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who has shepherded the state’s recent redistricting efforts, announced that the maps were drawn to give Republicans a large majority.
“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with eleven Republicans and two Democrats,” Lewis said at the time.
That comment has provided the underpinnings for a lawsuit that sets North Carolina apart from other partisan gerrymander challenges. The Wisconsin case relies more heavily on a proposed statistical formula called “the efficiency gap,” which counts the number of votes wasted when voters are shifted into districts where their votes won’t matter, either because their party’s candidate can’t win or is already sure to win.
The North Carolina challengers argue, like the challengers in Wisconsin, that the maps drawn discriminate against Democratic candidates and voters because of their political beliefs. They say the lawmakers who either “packed” them into a single district or “cracked” their district into multiple districts to weaken their influence are robbing them of free speech and equal protection rights because their opinions differ from the lawmakers in power.
Republicans argue that such arguments and formulas are not for the courts to decide – that redistricting is a legislative duty in North Carolina.
“The remedy for concerns over political map-drawing rests with the people, not with the courts,” attorneys representing the Republican lawmakers said in their opening statement. “This court should avoid entangling itself in the highly partisan, hotly disputed and inherently political process of redistricting.”
‘I don’t have horns’
In their opening statement, attorneys for Common Cause urged the courts to rein in the drawing of districts for partisan advantage.
They focused on Thomas Hofeller, a veteran mapmaker for the Republican Party who was at the trial on Monday.
“I don't have horns,” Hofeller said with a smile to reporters during a break in the trial.
But to challengers, Hofeller represents the extremes to which technology has been used to help elected officials choose their voters instead of giving voters the power to select who represents them.
Common Cause attorneys cited Hofeller’s words in their opening arguments.
“North Carolina was but one front in a broader push for partisan control over congressional redistricting following the 2010 census,” the Common Cause attorneys said.
Hofeller, a longtime employee of the Republican National Committee, had been offered to North Carolina Republicans after the party gained control of both General Assembly chambers in 2010.
“Drawing new district lines ... presented the opportunity to solidify conservative policymaking at the state level and maintain a Republican stronghold in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade,” challengers quoted Hofeller saying.
Three lawsuits filed in North Carolina since Hofeller drew North Carolina’s districts in 2011 have challenged the mapmaker’s and lawmakers’ heavy reliance on race for legislative and congressional districts that since have been found unconstitutional.
Federal and state judges are weighing whether state legislative districts that Hofeller drew this year to fix the racial gerrymanders are sufficient. One of those cases was heard last week in federal court in Greensboro.
Some contend the new districts continue to weaken the influence of black voters, who often support Democrats.
Braxton Brewington, a senior at N.C. A&T State University, a historically black school in Greensboro, stood outside the courthouse on Monday, criticizing lawmakers for splitting his campus into two congressional districts.
“I would ask students at surrounding universities, and even citizens across North Carolina and throughout the nation to ask yourself what it would mean to you to know your constitutional right was diminished, weakened,” Brewington said. “Voting is the most basic way to make your voice heard, to stand up for what you believe in and let politicians know what issues you care about. And when that power, that right, that fundamental integrity is stripped, especially from students of color achieving higher education, that is suppression.”