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Court rules N.C. congressional districts (still) unconstitutionally gerrymandered

The congressional district plan was enacted on Feb. 19, 2016. It was drawn in response to a ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Photo courtesy of the N.C. General Assembly.

A federal district court panel in Greensboro on Monday confirmed its January decision that the N.C. General Assembly unconstitutionally gerrymandered congressional districts in a way that favored Republican candidates when lines were redrawn in 2016.

The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the decision to the court in June, asking the three justices to decide whether the plaintiffs had the right to sue. The plaintiffs in the case included political organization Common Cause North Carolina, voting rights activist groups and residents of North Carolina. 

Republicans currently hold 10 of the 13 congressional seats in North Carolina.

Bob Phillips, executive director for Common Cause North Carolina, said there is a long history in North Carolina of the party in power drawing district lines to its own advantage. In the opinion, Judge James Wynn wrote voters have called for a ruling on the constitutionality of congressional district plans drawn by state legislatures for 30 years.

For Common Cause, the tipping point came in 2016.

“When the legislature had to come back in 2016 to draw a new congressional map because of racial gerrymandering, they admitted it was a partisan gerrymander,” Phillips said. “That was something we had never heard out in the open quite like that.”

A press release published by Common Cause following the court’s ruling on Monday quoted remarks from N.C. Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, from a redistricting committee meeting in 2016.

“We want to make clear that we ... are going to use political data in drawing this map,” Lewis said in 2016. “It is to gain partisan advantage on the map. I want that criteria to be clearly stated and understood.”

The lines were redrawn in 2016 after some districts were decided to be racially gerrymandered by a federal court. The practice of racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional.

Phillips said the next steps are uncertain for the time being.

“The court has suggested that the legislature will either have to draw a new map that could be applied to the upcoming November election or will be applied to the next election in 2020,” he said. “It could be the legislature drawing the new map, or it could be an outside party called a special master who redraws the map.”

In the court’s opinion, Wynn wrote there is the possibility for new districts to be used in the 2018 election. Normally, Wynn wrote, the court would allow one more use of the old map, but special circumstances in North Carolina, including the challenging of two proposed constitutional amendments, could make it possible to use new maps in this election.

Wynn wrote it may be possible to hold the election in 2018 without primaries because of a previous General Assembly abolition of primaries for several state partisan offices. It may also be possible to hold a primary congressional election in November and a special election before January 2019. 

Phillips said it’s likely the case could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court again. The U.S. Supreme Court has not previously declared a partisan gerrymander to be unconstitutional.

“It’s regretful that this is the place that North Carolina sees itself in,” he said. “Voters deserve to have congressional and legislative districts that are not gerrymandered, that are compact and that are as competitive as they can be based on the area.”

Phillips mentioned the history of Democrats and Republicans alike drawing districts in their own party’s favor, and he encouraged young voters to stay civically engaged.

“Being a good citizen beyond just voting is to use your citizen lobbyist voice to connect with the legislature that makes these decisions,” Phillips said. “You can still connect with these people that serve your own communities in Raleigh because they are the ones that are ultimately going to have to fix this.”


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