Wake County state Senator Wiley Nickel’s red and blue markers squealed into the microphone as he circled dots on a cardboard cutout in the legislature’s redistricting committee meeting Monday. The rudimentary gerrymandering lesson would have been comical if it wasn’t based in fact: despite North Carolina’s near 50-50 split between Republican and Democratic voters, the congressional map GOP officials had drawn ensured them an 11-3 or 10-4 majority.
“The most important question is very simple: How greedy are you going to be with these maps?” Nickel said.
Republicans Monday maintained the maps were drawn fairly in the most transparent process to date. The three new maps—for U.S. congressional districts and the state House and Senate—are expected to pass by a party-line vote this week. In terms of partisan fairness, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the congressional map an “F,” finding it gave Republicans a significant advantage at the polls.
State law doesn’t give Governor Roy Cooper a veto, so it will be left up to the courts to see if the maps hold up for the March primary. And the U.S. Supreme Court has shown no interest in blocking partisan gerrymandering.
The clock is ticking: with the December filing deadline for candidates just a month away, local and state elections boards will have barely enough time to ensure folks are running in the right district.
Lawsuits filed last week by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on behalf of the North Carolina NAACP and Common Cause seek to delay the primary, claiming the draft maps violate the Voting Rights Act because Republicans did not use racial data to draw new districts. You can’t protect the rights of Black voters without knowing where they are, said attorney Mitchell Brown, representing the plaintiffs.
“Just because you stick your head in the ground saying you are going to ignore race does not mean that you are not being racist,” Brown says. “To ignore race is to ignore Black voters’ humanity.”
Litigation over the state’s voting maps has been the status quo for the last four decades, and there hasn’t been a complete set of maps since the 1980s. The most recent legal battle over Republican-drawn maps in 2011 spanned the last decade, and maps that were later ruled unconstitutional were used in the previous four elections.
Republicans have been brazen in defense of their partisan maps. As former GOP Rep. David Lewis said in 2016: “Electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats […] So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”
“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats,” Lewis said, “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
Lewis, who resigned from the legislature amid scandal and was sentenced to campaign finance fraud this summer, may finally get his wish: in a year with strong Republican turnout, the GOP could have an 11-3 majority in Congress based on the current maps. The best outcome for Democrats would be an 8-6 split in favor of Republicans.
One of the so-called “competitive” districts would include portions of the Triangle in southern Wake County, which swings predominantly Democrat. That district stretches through rural areas to the Triad, nearly 100 miles away. Overall, the state’s three largest metro areas were cut to merge hundreds of thousands of urban voters with Republican-leaning rural areas.
The maps completely remade Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Manning’s district, which covers Greensboro and Winston-Salem. She lambasted the proposed new district boundaries as “extreme partisan gerrymandering,” with the aim of recapturing Republican control of the U.S. House.
“Under these maps, Guilford County is split into three congressional districts, diluting the interests of my constituents and lumping them in with far-flung counties in the western mountains, the suburbs of Charlotte, and as far east as Wake County,” Manning said in a statement. “These maps don’t acknowledge that the Triad is a region with shared interests, concerns, and needs.”
During the committee hearing Monday, Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue said the migration of more than a million voters in Wake, Mecklenburg, and Guilford counties defies common sense.
“This kind of radical, extreme effort simply takes us out of the process and I think that you are convinced, as I am, it’s not going to stand,” Blue said. “So why don’t we fix it right while we still have the opportunity to do it and not be governed by what interests outside of North Carolina tell us we ought to do in handling North Carolina business.”
The request fell on deaf ears. Relying on the slow pace of the courts has played to Republicans’ advantage in the past.
“We have seen in the past, elections move forward even under challenged maps,” says Michael Bitzer, professor of history and politics at Catawba College. “The likelihood is, if past is any prologue, we will continue onward with the elections just shifting the fight to the courts from the legislature.”
That’s precisely why the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed its lawsuits before the maps even received the legislative rubber stamp, hoping to place an injunction and delay the primary until new maps can be drawn. The objection isn’t to the maps themselves, but rather the process used.
By not including a racial polarization study in the GOP’s consideration of the districts, the lawsuits claim “the districts will dilute the voting power of Black North Carolinians” and “diminish the ability of voters of color to elect the candidates of their choice.”
Republicans disagree, arguing that they weren’t required to consult racial data in the process. The lawsuit’s plaintiffs are using race as a sort of catch-22, Republican state Senator Ralph Hise said, according to the News & Observer.
“[The Southern Coalition for Social Justice] sued us previously because we used race, and now they’re suing us because we didn’t use race,” Hise told the N&O. “The only constant here is finding any excuse to sue to gain partisan advantage, no matter how contradictory, and they’re doing it before the maps have even been considered by a legislative committee.”
Brown, the plaintiff’s attorney, says they’re hoping for a hearing on the request for injunction before the end of the month. That leaves a tight timeline for local and state election boards to enact the changes, says Gerry Cohen, former special counsel to the General Assembly who serves on the Wake County Board of Elections.
The work is tedious, Cohen says, and can take hours for each divided precinct. Aside from making sure candidates are running in the right district, the board also has to make sure the correct absentee ballots are mailed to residents, which are required to go out by January 12.
“It’s a lot of work and presumably that has to get done right away,” Cohen says.
The state House redistricting committee toiled over the maps late into the night Monday, accepting only a handful of amendments from Democrats. The Senate redistricting committee was expected to pass its own version Tuesday. It had not done so by the time the INDY went to print.
But tensions were already at a boiling point Monday. After House Speaker Tim Moore confirmed there would not be a vote on the maps at the night’s 7 p.m. session, most Democrats walked out of the chambers. Republicans then appointed Donnie Loftus, a Gaston County Republican who attended the deadly January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, as the House’s newest member.
“Redistricting is the most political activity in American politics these days,” Bitzer says. “When you have this level of polarization and partisan divide, and the fact that we the voters have sorted ourselves into communities that tend to vote overwhelmingly for one party over the other, this is what you get.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Follow Senior Staff Writer Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.