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Big, big #ncpol news out of Raleigh yesterday. A federal court has struck the congressional districts the General Assembly drew in 2016—to replace congressional districts that had previously been ruled unconstitutional racial gerrymanders—were themselves unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. A three-judge panel gave the NCGA until January 29 to solve the problem. This decision, of course, comes at a federal court in the Triad is about to redraw the state’s legislative districts—which, again, were redrawn last year after the original districts were ruled unconstitutional. I’m starting to sense a pattern. In any event, let’s go through the ruling and then talk about its greater import.
- From the NYT: “Judge James A. Wynn Jr., in a biting 191-page opinion, said that Republicans in North Carolina’s Legislature had been ‘motivated by invidious partisan intent’ as they carried out their obligation in 2016 to divide the state into 13 congressional districts, 10 of which are held by Republicans. The result, Judge Wynn wrote, violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection.”
- “The ruling left little doubt about how the judges assessed the Legislature’s most recent map. Judge Wynn, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit and was a member of a special panel considering the congressional map, said that ‘a wealth of evidence proves the General Assembly’s intent to ‘subordinate’ the interests of non-Republican voters and ‘entrench’ Republican domination of the state’s congressional delegation.’”
- This is blindingly obvious to anyone who has watched the General Assembly work in recent years. Hell, Representative David Lewis said it at the time: “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to ten Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with eleven Republicans and two Democrats.” As the N&O’s story points out: “The comment by Lewis has provided the underpinnings for a lawsuit that sets North Carolina apart from other partisan gerrymander challenges.”
- The ruling (read the Google Doc here) relies in part on a study from Duke applied mathematics professor Jonathan Mattingly, who simulated more than twenty-four thousand configurations using a probability distribution of all possible redistricting plans. In those simulations, less than 1 percent ended up with ten Republicans seats and three Democratic seats: “Using actual 2016 congressional votes, a congressional delegation of 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats—the outcome that occurred under the 2016 Plan—occurred in less than 0.7 percent of the simulated plans (162/24,518), with a delegation of 8 Republicans and 5 Democrats occurring in approximately 55 percent of the plans.”
- NYT: “Republican officials in the General Assembly said Tuesday evening that they intended to appeal the ruling, which many elected officials and political strategists were still scrambling to digest. Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, criticized Judge Wynn and accused him of ‘waging a personal, partisan war on North Carolina Republicans.’ In a separate post on Twitter, Mr. Woodhouse argued that Judge Wynn had concluded that North Carolina’s Republicans ‘should not be allowed to draw election districts under any circumstances under any set of rules,’ an effort he called ‘a hostile takeover’ of the General Assembly and legislatures nationwide.”
WHAT IT MEANS: The redrawing of the legislative districts being undertaken by special master Nathaniel Persily seems likely to end the GOP’s supermajorities in the legislature, whether or not there’s a Democratic wave in November. That would be enough to sustain Governor Cooper’s veto power, which in turn would end Phil Berger and Tim Moore’s carte blanche to do whatever they please. The congressional districts have national implications, however.
- First, there’s the timing: The short period between when new districts would be finalized—provided the GOP’s appeal is unsuccessful—and when candidates have to file means there would be a scramble. Districts will change, perhaps dramatically. Districts that looked safe for incumbents won’t be. Politicians who aren’t currently running could spot an opportunity and get in the game. In short, it will alter the playing field.
- Second, there’s the big picture: Right now, estimates suggest Democrats are on track to pick up thirty-eight House seats in November, which would be enough to reclaim the majority. [WaPo] But even in a Democratic wave, a lot of those races will fall in Republican-leaning districts, which means they’ll be close. An extra two or three Democratic seats in North Carolina could be the difference.
- Finally, there’s the rub: Yet again, the NCGA has proven itself incapable of drawing anything resembling a fair map. The Republicans’ thirst for political power prevents that. However, if the shoe were on the other foot, do you really think the Democrats’ intentions would be any different? It’s easy to harp on gerrymandering when the results run contrary to your ideological interests—as, in my case, the Republican gerrymanders obviously do. It’s harder to do so when that dynamic is reversed. Which is why it’s time to take this out of politicians’ hands, at least so much as is possible. The state needs to create an independent redistricting commission, split between the parties (and independents!), or hand it off to legislative staffers, or something. [INDY] At the very least, we need to acknowledge that the present way of doing things is irreparably broken.