As the 2022 election cycle heats up, one of the more compelling events leading up to it locally is underway this week at Duke University.

A two-day conference, Redistricting and American Democracy, features scholars, judicial officials, and activists who will “examine the legal and political landscape of redistricting, preview the ongoing process in North Carolina and around the country, and discuss reforms,” according to a Duke press release.

Although the conference will review what’s taking place all over the country, the issues surrounding redistricting in North Carolina alone are worth the price of admission. 

This year, during a period of increasing political and racial polarization, the state’s congressional and legislative districts are set to be redrawn using data from the 2020 Census. Since the new maps will be in place for the next 10 years, for a great many political observers, democracy itself hangs in the balance.

The Duke conference opened on Tuesday and featured some of the nation’s leading experts and advocates discussing the legal and political landscape of redistricting nationally. The participants also reviewed the litigation and reform efforts of the past decade and previewed the current redistricting cycle.

Judge James Wynn, a member of the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, delivered the conference’s keynote address. One year after striking down the state’s voter identification in 2016 law, Wynn authored a landmark decision in Rucho v. Common Cause that invalidated North Carolina’s congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. 

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Court’s decision, and asserted that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” according to a 72-page syllabus of the case.

Wynn’s speech, “The Role of Judges and Justices in Redistricting,” addressed why he believes the Supreme Court’s decision in Rucho v. Common Cause is an example of judicial activism. 

“The Supreme Court still enjoys a pretty high level of confidence from the voters out there,” Wynn said last year while delivering the James Madison lecture at the NYU School of Law. “But I do fear that … the connection of judges with the particular president that appointed them or the party that they have been associated with, will tell you the outcome in a case before you even know fully what the case is about. And that’s not a good thing. Ultimately, the judicial branch needs to maintain independence.”

Wednesday’s activities include a virtual discussion “on the advances in quantitative analysis and computational science that have given policymakers, judges, and advocates a set of powerful new tools to measure the impact of gerrymandering,” according to the release. 

The second day of the conference will focus on North Carolina, and preparations by the General Assembly to draw new electoral maps. 

One of the day’s highlights features an interactive virtual session “How to Be a Redistricting Watchdog,” moderated by a redistricting consultant and investigative reporter who will train participants on how to watch and interpret the map-drawing process as it is unfolding in real time, according to the release.

The conference foreshadows another showdown between Democrats and the state’s majority Republican legislators, who have relied on a cache of voter suppression laws to thwart the will of largely Black and Brown voters who typically pull the lever for Democratic Party candidates. Some political observers say that instead of developing platforms that appeal to those voters, the North Carolina GOP has instead made it more difficult for Black and Brown people to vote.

In an example of Republican overreach, a three-judge panel earlier this month knocked down the state’s 2018 photo voter identification law, enshrined with a referendum, as marred by racial bias as a means for Republicans to maintain the balance of power in the General Assembly.

In 2016, the Fourth Circuit ruled as unconstitutional a bundle of voter provisions that “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision” and “constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist.” 

The 83-page ruling also noted that the federal judges “cannot ignore the record evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.”

The 2016 ruling also noted that redistricting can comprise legislative voter suppression efforts, stating that discrimination can take many forms. 

“One common way it has surfaced is in challenges centered on vote dilution, where manipulation of district lines can dilute the voting strength of politically cohesive minority group members,” the federal court stated.

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