By: Gabby Vance
On Monday, October 28th, 2019, a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Wake County ruled that the proposed North Carolina congressional district maps violated the North Carolina state constitution. Despite Democrats making up about half the state vote, the maps only consisted of three Democratic districts and ten Republican districts. The panel found that the maps clearly discriminated against Democratic voters. The mapmakers used tactics such as “packing” and “cracking” to skew the maps in favor of Republicans and manipulate the upcoming 2020 election in their favor. Packing concentrates supporters for a political party into one district to give their party a less number of wins. Whereas cracking, the opposite technique spreads large groups of voters with the same political ideology out to water down their votes. These methods created landslide victories in North Carolina in the three Democratic districts; the candidates consistently win by over 70% of the vote and then much smaller victories for the Republican seats, only around mid-to-high 50% victories.
This however was not the first time many heard about the odd-shaped North Carolina districts. Four months ago, the Supreme Court was shown the exact same North Carolina gerrymander in Rucho v. Common Cause, but decided in a five to four vote that partisan gerrymandering claims present questions outside the scope of the federal court system. The justices made clear that state courts still had the right to address the issue of partisan gerrymandering. Subsequently, North Carolina has become the “test case” for what partisan gerrymandering cases look like in a post-Rucho world.
The panel decided in the case at hand, Harper v. Lewis, that extreme partisan gerrymandering violated the free elections clause in the North Carolina state constitution. They also mentioned the North Carolina Constitution guarantees “equal protection” for all of their people, which was not the case here. The panel urged the North Carolina General Assembly in an expedited process to redraw the districts in a more bipartisan manner.
While redrawing the congressional maps in a bipartisan manner might seem like an impossible challenge for the Tar Heel state, North Carolina demonstrated that this could be achievable after unanimously voting in favor of new legislative maps. In this instance, computer-generators selected the districts at random. Leaders of the North Carolina House noted the historically transparent and bipartisan process. However, congressional districts will be a tougher battle to win than legislative district maps. Depending on the ultimate redistricting of the maps, the Democrats will have a chance to win six if not more seats in the House. If there is a close election in the House, the additional three-plus seats could give Democrats control of the chamber.
This North Carolina decision likely will foreshadow other states challenging partisan gerrymandering on state constitutional grounds. After the information obtained from the 2020 census, all states will be required to make new redistricting plans. Paul Smith, the Vice President of the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, said that he expects to see a significant increase in the number of partisan gerrymandering cases in state courts in 2021 and then after.