State Politics

Republican lawmakers upset with Stanford professor’s plan to fix gerrymandering

Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor tapped by federal judges to help review N.C. election districts, submitted his report on Dec. 1, 2017.
Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford University law professor tapped by federal judges to help review N.C. election districts, submitted his report on Dec. 1, 2017. N&O file photo

The Stanford University professor hired to draw North Carolina election maps for a panel of federal judges weighing a gerrymandering case has submitted a plan that quickly drew criticism from Republican lawmakers and praise from challengers.

Nathaniel Persily, a law professor tapped in November to review state House and Senate maps adopted by legislators ordered to correct unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, on Friday submitted proposed election district changes in Cumberland, Guilford, Hoke, Mecklenburg, Wake, Bladen, Sampson and Wayne counties.

In his 69-page report to the judges with maps and explanations of his proposed changes, Persily said his recommended plan eliminates “all of the constitutional infirmities the Court has identified in the plans enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2017.”

Persily’s plans, he said, “represent a limited response to a select number of districts that require alteration to comply with the law.”

Lawmakers have been critical of the process. They contend the federal judges who tapped Persily to help with the case did so prematurely and allowed him to consider race as he looked at election districts in eight counties.

The judges – James Wynn of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Catherine Eagles and Thomas Schroeder, both of the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina – have yet to rule on maps the lawmakers drew in August to determine what districts North Carolina’s state Senate and House members come from in the 2018 elections.

Their ordering of new election district lines came after the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the judges’ 2016 ruling that found nine of the state Senate districts and 19 of the state House districts to be longstanding unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

In late August, when the new maps were adopted, Republican lawmakers who led the redistricting process said the lines had been drawn without any consideration to the race of voters in the districts.

They had given weight, they said, to protecting incumbents in a legislative body where Republicans dominate – holding 35 of the 50 Senate seats and 75 of the 120 House seats after Rep. Bill Brisson of Dublin recently changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Their numbers allow them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes.

“A nonpartisan approach to redistricting is absolutely critical to bolstering the legitimacy of the Special Master’s Plan,” Persily’s report to the judges states.

But the chairmen of the redistricting committees in the state House and Senate questioned that theory in a joint statement issued Friday.

“Earlier this week, the (Raleigh) News & Observer analyzed the original maps drawn by the so-called ‘special master’ and reported those maps would already make it easier for Democrats to defeat Republican incumbents,” Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, and Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, said in their statement.

“By making many changes Democrats demanded, Mr. Persily has confirmed our worst suspicions: this entire ‘judicial process’ is little more than a thinly-veiled political operation where unelected judges, legislating from the bench, strip North Carolinians of their constitutional right to self-governance by appointing a left-wing California professor to draw districts handing Democrats control of legislative seats they couldn’t win at the ballot box.”

A previous draft of Persily’s plan appears to make it easier for Democrats to defeat Republican incumbents in four House races and two Senate races.

Persily’s maps only redrew a fraction of the state’s 170 legislative districts, mostly in urban counties that tend to favor Democrats. Most of the districts drawn in August favor Republicans, according to a News & Observer analysis.

The plan released Friday shifted lines from a draft plan released last month that included lines that “double-bunked,” or put incumbent lawmakers in the same district. The new map continues to keep two Guilford County senators, Gladys Robinson, a Democrat, and Trudy Wade, a Republican, in the same districts. Persily offered a proposal for how to change that if the judges chose to.

The three-judge panel has scheduled a Jan. 5 hearing on Persily’s report.

North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin criticized Republicans for challenging the legitimacy of Persily’s work.

“The independent, non-partisan special master had one task – to fix Republicans’ unconstitutional racial gerrymander after Speaker Moore and Leader Berger refused,” Goodwin said in a statement. “NCDP applauds the special master for doing just that, and for giving voters in the affected districts a chance to pick their representatives again instead of the other way around. Republicans made this bed and now they must lie in it, and their efforts to delegitimize the special master and our judicial system are dangerous and destructive.”

Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice representing the challengers, lauded Persily’s effort.

The challengers have been in long-running court battles over election maps adopted by the General Assembly in 2011, shortly after Republicans gained majorities in both chambers. Election lines are tweaked every 10 years to reflect population shifts in census data. The districts used to elect General Assembly members in 2012, 2014 and 2016 packed black voters, who often vote Democratic, into districts where their candidates already were likely to be successful, according to federal court rulings. By doing that, the courts found, the overall influence of black voters had been weakened in North Carolina.

“We appreciate the hard work done by Dr. Persily to make sure that North Carolinians have fair districts and an equal voice in our democracy,” Riggs said in a statement. “It appears he took into account all of the feedback he received from plaintiffs and defendants.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1