In 2016, North Carolina Republicans got caught.
It was seven months before the presidential election, and a panel of three federal judges ruled GOP lawmakers had illegally diluted the black vote by packing African American voters in two congressional districts. They told the lawmakers, who had a super-majority in the state legislature, to come up with a new map in just two weeks.
State Rep. David Lewis (R), one of the chairs of the redistricting committee, openly acknowledged at the time that Republicans were trying to use political data to maximize their partisan advantage. “I propose we draw a map to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” Lewis said during a legislative meeting. Republicans implemented a new map that did just that. (Lawyers representing Lewis now say the comment was meant to be a joke.)
The committee hired an expert mapmaker and told him to comply with federal requirements for drawing congressional districts. But it set out two other crucial criteria: He could not consider race and he had to draw a plan that allowed Republicans to maintain 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats ― the same advantage they had under the map that was unlawfully racially gerrymandered.
The Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear oral arguments in a closely watched case seeking to strike down that map that was drawn in 2016.
The plaintiffs in the case say Lewis’ comments offer evidence of unconstitutional intent to hurt Democratic voters. The circumstances in North Carolina, they say, offer a clear and unique opportunity for the court to place limits on partisan gerrymandering, something it has repeatedly declined to do.
The Supreme Court consolidated the North Carolina case with a separate but similar lawsuit from Maryland. In the Maryland case, Republican voters in one congressional district say Democrats violated their First Amendment rights when they redrew the district in 2011 to flip it from a Republican one to a Democratic one.
A ruling against North Carolina and Maryland could require both states to redraw their maps ahead of the 2020 congressional elections. More significantly, it could have a profound effect on American politics for the next decade by requiring lawmakers to draw districts that give candidates from both parties a more fair shot at winning. Lower courts in both the North Carolina and Maryland cases sided with the plaintiffs and struck down the congressional plans as unlawful partisan gerrymanders.
After Brett Kavanaugh replaced Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court last year, many legal observers said there was effectively no chance the high court would do something about partisan gerrymandering. Kennedy was considered the crucial swing vote on the issue because in 2004 he wrote that there may be a legal standard for figuring out when partisan gerrymandering was unconstitutional. Last year, Kennedy and the justices passed on two opportunities to weigh in on such redistricting practices. Kavanaugh’s views on the issue are not clear.
The plaintiffs in North Carolina, which include the state’s Democratic Party, Democratic voters and advocacy groups, are offering the Supreme Court several theories to explain why severe partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional.
They say the practice violates the First Amendment’s protections for freedom of speech and association, as well as the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of law. The plaintiffs also say lawmakers who excessively gerrymander ― and therefore virtually guarantee electoral outcomes ― violate Article I of the Constitution, which specifically gives “the people” the authority to choose their representatives and restricts state lawmakers’ role to setting the “time, manner and place” of elections.
Lawyers representing North Carolina Republicans say the Supreme Court has no reason to step in and police gerrymandering. They argue that the Founding Fathers believed redistricting would always mix with politics, which is why they gave state lawmakers the power to draw district lines, and that there’s no way to determine how much politics is too much when it comes to redistricting. The lawyers suggest the Supreme Court would invite a slew of lawsuits from any voters unhappy with his or her representation if it were to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.
‘You Just Get Written Off’
Under the map drawn in 2016, some voters in Chatham County, a blue-leaning county outside the so-called research triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, were moved from a Democratic district to a Republican one. They had been represented by Rep. David Price, a Democrat, but in 2017, their congressman became Rep. Mark Walker, a newcomer in Congress.
Nancy Jacobs, an organizer of a local Indivisible group, said activists pressed Walker during a town hall in 2017 about health care. Jacobs said her group has met with his staff since then and urged him to return to Chatham County for another town hall, but they’ve been unsuccessful so far.
“At one point, I met with him with a group of people and he said, ‘Well, I have to represent the people who voted for me.’ I said, ‘Well, we didn’t vote for you and we’ll never vote for you, but we’re still your constituents,’” Jacobs told HuffPost.
Ryan Watts unsuccessfully challenged Walker for his seat last year and said gerrymandering made it more difficult to figure out how to use campaign resources. For example, he noted that the lines Republicans drew split the campus of North Carolina A&T, putting some of the campus in his district and some in another. The plaintiffs say the split was an intentional effort to split up Democratic voters and dilute their votes.
“It’s really difficult as a candidate to campaign in a place where people may work in your district but may not live in your district or vote in your district or vice versa,” Watts said in an interview. “There’s a lot of spent resources there to try to figure out how to reach out to those communities on one side of the street or another are represented by somebody else. That makes campaigning really extremely difficult.”
Randy Voller, a former chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party and mayor of Pittsboro, a town in Chatham County, said members of Congress were a crucial conduit for local officials to communicate their needs and get resources from the federal government. Voller said Walker wasn’t really familiar with Chatham County when he came to office.
Mike Dasher, the chair of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners, said he could only recall one instance of Walker visiting the county (although he said it was possible there were others). Dasher said not feeling like your vote counted weakened people’s confidence in their government.
“You get written off. He’s a politician. He knows this is not where your votes are at. When you’re in a district that’s as overwhelmingly Republican as his he doesn’t have to worry about it,” Dasher said.
“We win elections, we lose elections, and that’s OK. Sometimes you’re gonna lose,” he said. “But when you know that your elected leadership just doesn’t have to pay attention to you, that has some lasting damage for sure.”