State Politics

Common Cause challenges partisan gerrymandering in NC

Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting members review historical voting maps during a meeting at the N.C. legislature in February.
Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting members review historical voting maps during a meeting at the N.C. legislature in February.

In a potentially landmark lawsuit, Common Cause and the N.C. Democratic Party Friday launched the nation’s latest challenge to partisan gerrymandering.

The suit, filed in a federal court in Greensboro, follows a long parade of redistricting litigation in North Carolina. It’s also one of several suits around the country contesting the use of partisanship in drawing political boundaries.

“Partisanship might be the next frontier for redistricting cases,” said Wendy Underhill, director of the Elections and Redistricting Program for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Joining Common Cause in the suit was the state Democratic Party and Democratic voters from each of the state’s 13 congressional districts. Republicans dismissed the suit as another effort from the “radical left” to help Democrats.

“This is just the latest in a long line of attempts by far-left groups to use the federal court system to take away the rights of North Carolina voters,” Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. David Lewis, who chair the General Assembly’s redistricting committees, said in a statement.

The Common Cause suit comes six months after a panel of federal judges threw out North Carolina’s congressional districts, calling them racial gerrymanders and forcing lawmakers to draw new districts and reschedule congressional primaries.

The latest suit argues that those new districts were drawn almost solely for the benefit of the Republicans who drew them. It offers statistics to show how Republicans – and Democrats – have used partisan redistricting to their advantage.

▪ In 2012, the suit says, 51 percent of N.C. voters – more than 2.2 million – voted for Democratic congressional candidates. But as a result of Republican-drawn districts, nine of the state’s 13 members of Congress were Republican.

▪ In 2014, Democrats won 44 percent of the congressional vote but elected only three of the 13 lawmakers.

▪ In 2010, under boundaries drawn by Democrats, Republicans won 54 percent of the congressional vote but ended up with one fewer member of Congress than Democrats.

The suit quotes Lewis describing this year’s redistricting.

“We want to make clear that we … are going to use political data in drawing this map,” he said. “It is to gain partisan advantage on the map … I want that criteria to be clearly stated and understood.”

Lewis also said they were drawing a map to elect 10 congressional Republicans and three Democrats “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

“Perhaps for the first time ever in North Carolina, state legislators have freely and publicly admitted that they gerrymandered for rank partisan advantage,” Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC, said Friday.

Phillips said while courts have ruled on racial gerrymandering – packing African-American voters in certain districts – they have yet to rule definitively on partisan districting. “We believe our case can finally make clear that gerrymandering of any kind violates the constitutional rights of North Carolina voters,” Phillips said.

How much is too much?

Partisan redistricting, or gerrymandering, has always been a part of political map-making. But analysts say courts, which have weighed in on the use of race, could be ready to say how much partisanship is too much.

In December, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Maryland man could proceed with his challenge to congressional districts drawn by Democrats.

This spring, a federal court in Wisconsin heard arguments in a suit arguing that legislative districts were the result of partisan gerrymanders. Democratic plaintiffs argued that the state’s redistricting plan discounts the value of Democratic votes.

“The plaintiffs here are arguing that once you cross a certain threshold, you’re no longer providing a level playing field …if partisan bias becomes too extreme,” said David Canon, a University of Wisconsin political scientist.

This year, critics challenged North Carolina’s new congressional districts as political gerrymanders. Maps drawn and approved by legislators in February were “an intentional manipulation of district lines for the purpose of disadvantaging and drowning out more than half of the electorate because of those citizens’ political views,” they said.

In upholding the new districts, a federal three-judge panel said it did not have enough evidence before it to determine the question of political gerrymandering.

“While we find our hands tied, we note that it may be possible to challenge redistricting plans when partisan considerations go ‘too far,’ ” they said in the ruling. “But it is presently obscure what ‘too far’ means.”

Testing for partisanship

Experts say that’s the question: When does partisanship cross the line?

On Wednesday, attorneys for the voters who filed the initial challenge of the N.C. congressional districts appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that state lawmakers who redrew the districts used “a brazen approach” in adopting a plan that gives lawmakers license to choose their voters instead of letting voters choose their lawmakers.

“The Supreme Court has long suggested there is a limit for what is acceptable partisan gerrymandering, but like obscenity, so far the line is undefined and left to courts to know it when they see it,” Common Cause said on its website.

As it happens, Common Cause has held a contest to answer that question.

Winning third place this year: Ted Arrington, a retired political scientist at UNC Charlotte and national expert on redistricting.

He proposed using a formula called an “adjusted normal partisan vote measure” to measure votes based on a normative partisan division over time.

He said the latest challenge could result in new precedent. “North Carolina is famous for giving us landmark cases in legislative redistricting,” he said Friday. “It’s a good place to make a case.”

Anne Blythe of the (Raleigh) News & Observer contributed.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill