Gerrymandering is arguably the hottest topic in North Carolina politics. But trying to tease apart everything that’s happened since North Carolina Republicans re-drew legislative maps to favor their party is mind-numbing.
With gerrymandering continually back in the headlines, we’re giving it a shot.
The story has followed a winding course through the court system. None of it is simple. All of it is interconnected. Most of it is still up in the air.
The last eight years have been the latest cycle in North Carolina’s tradition of minority parties challenging the election districts drawn by their political opponents1. Here’s the short version of how we got to where we are.
[Note: This story was originally published in January 2018. It was last updated January 22, 2019.]
What is gerrymandering in North Carolina?
Gerrymandering is a term used to criticize electoral lines drawn each decade that determine the districts for reach representative in state legislative and federal congressional races. This is also known as redistricting.
People call redistricting plans gerrymandering when they’re drawn to give a certain group of people a distinct advantage.
There are two types of gerrymandering that are important to understand:
- Racial gerrymandering. This is when districts are drawn based on the racial makeup of the people living in them. For example, African-Americans can either be clumped together or split apart to minimize their voting power. This is illegal under the U.S. Constitution.
- Partisan gerrymandering. This is when the political party drawing districts does so to give themselves an electoral advantage. For example, Republicans could draw lines to maximize the number of seats they’re likely to win. This is not distinctly illegal under current constitutional law, but the issue is not settled. Most of today’s challenges fall under this category.
Where do we stand today?
North Carolina’s districts have been continually challenged since they were first drawn in 2011.
North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House districts originally created in 2011 have already been successfully challenged as an illegal racial gerrymander. New districts were drawn in 2016, and have been used twice so far.
There’s currently a new challenge to these districts — this time on partisan grounds. The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to accept the case, and could use North Carolina as a precedent-setting case for partisan gerrymandering nationwide.
Here are the current Congressional lines.
Want to read about the Congressional challenges? Jump right there.
General Assembly districts
The state’s General Assembly lines from 2011 were found illegal, and the court system has overseen a process where the state legislature drew some new lines and a special court-appointed expert drew others.
The 2018 elections used a combination of lines drawn up in 2017 for Wake and Mecklenburg counties and new ones from an expert the courts called in. The U.S. Supreme Court confirmed in June 2018 that this set-up is acceptable for foreseeable future — but a new lawsuit has just been filed to challenge them in state court.
Want to read about challenges to these lines? Jump there now.
Here’s a sequential look at what’s taken place.
2010 – A Census is taken and a big shift at the polls
This story starts with the decennial census in 2010, which reported more large gains in population for North Carolina — 18.5 percent, to be exact. Though the state did not gain any additional seats in the U.S. House, the growth was uneven, heavily skewed toward the urban areas.
That November, Republicans gained a majority in the state House and Senate for the first time in a century, the culmination in long-term trends driven by national party politics.
2011 – The newly Republican legislature takes a crack at district maps.
In North Carolina, the state legislature is responsible for drawing districts for U.S. House as well as the state House and Senate. Every 10 years, they tweak the boundaries based on census data because every district needs to be home to roughly the same number of people.
The law requires the maps to not be drawn based on race and for county lines to be followed as much as possible. But at this point, legislatures were allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court to take party registration and past election results into account while drawing lines.
Then-N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho led the Senate maps, and Rep. David Lewis was in charge of U.S. House and N.C. House.
Here was the Congressional district map from 2002 to 2010:
This is what it became under the plan approved in 2011:
As you can see, there were some major changes to districts 9, 1, 13 and 6. Also, District 12 remained one of the most gerrymandered in the nation, snaking through the urban corridor of I-85 from Charlotte to Greensboro.
As a result of these new maps, Democrats went from 7 seats in the U.S. House to 4 in the 2012 elections, while Republicans grew from 6 seats to 9. Two years later, Republicans picked up another seat, bringing the gap to 10-3.
These maps were used in the 2012 and 2014 elections.
These General Assembly maps approved in 2011 were used in the 2012 through the 2016 elections.
Challenges to the 2011 maps
Opponents immediately began mounting a legal challenge to both the Congressional and General Assembly maps on the grounds that they amounted to an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. Mapmakers were not allowed to pack members of a minority group into one district or spread them apart unreasonably to minimize their impact in elections.
The challenges focused in Congressional Districts 1 and 122, both heavily favoring Democrats to prevent challenges in Republican held districts.
District 1 looked like this under the 2011 maps:
District 12 looked like this:
Here were the three main challenges arising from these maps.
The Congressional challenge: Cooper v. Harris3
This federal court challenge argued that Republican mapmakers relied too heavily on race in drawing Districts 1 and 12. Republicans contended that they were trying to uphold the Voting Rights Act, which requires minority groups (sometimes) to be concentrated in sufficient numbers to have an impact at the ballot box, as opposed to being spread out to dilute their impact.
The key ruling came in 2016 when a federal appeals court ruled that the districts were unconstitutional and ordered a redraw.
The case came to a formal close in May 2017 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that the maps did constitute an illegal racial gerrymander. But by that point, the districts had been changed so the impact was moot4.
The General Assembly challenge: North Carolina v. Covington
This federal court challenge filed in 2015 claimed that mapmakers improperly used race to pack African-Americans into nine N.C. Senate districts and 19 N.C. House districts.
The case has had a winding path through the courts since then, but basically here’s what happened.
1) A federal court ruled in late 2016 that the state House and Senate districts were unconstitutional and ordered them redrawn by March 2017, with special elections to be held that fall under the new districts.
2) State Republicans appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and asked for the special elections to be put on hold. That request was granted.
3) The Supreme Court sided with the lower federal court, agreeing that the districts were unconstitutional. The Supremes told the lower court to figure out if North Carolina should hold special elections in 2017.
4) State Republicans drew new state lines that were slightly different than the 2011 lines.
5) These new 2017 maps got challenged as still not good enough5.
6) Fall 2017 passed and no special elections were held.
7) The court appointed a “special master” — basically an expert in district map drawing — to draw proper maps for the court to look at.
8) The trial court ruled that North Carolina should use the special master’s maps for 2018.
9) The U.S. Supreme Court partially blocks the ruling in February 2018. The lines from the 2017 redraw are to be used in Wake and Mecklenburg counties, while the special master’s maps will be used for the other six counties he changed.
10) The U.S. Supreme rules in June 2018 that this scenario is good to go.
Here’s a good example of how this all shook out.
Similar things played out in Wake, Guilford, Mecklenburg and Bladen counties. You can look at the same type of comparisons for those counties here6.
Dickson v. Rucho
This is a case in state court that challenges both the Congressional and the General Assembly maps, claiming they are racial gerrymanders. It’s been passed back and forth between the N.C. Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court twice, but nothing has been finalized. Other cases are going to end up deciding this one, so I won’t get too far into it.
2016 – In an emergency special session, the General Assembly draws new lines for the Congressional districts.
After the pivotal federal appeals court ruling, the General Assembly rushed to draw new Congressional maps to be used in the fall 2016 election.
Here’s the 2011 map again:
And here’s what N.C. Republicans came up with for 2016:
As you can see, District 12 is much more normal and now just includes Charlotte. District 1 is also much more normal. North Carolinians voted in these districts in fall 2016, so our sitting congresspeople come from these. Republicans maintained a 10-3 advantage in that election.
Challenges to the 2016 Congressional districts
Opponents took a different method to challenge these. Instead of a racial gerrymander, they claimed these were unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.
This is interesting because generally, U.S. courts have allowed states to take political parties into consideration when drawing election districts. N.C. Republicans have been upfront that they drew their districts to maximize their advantage.
The famous quote here is from Rep. David Lewis, who took point on drawing the new districts. In explaining why the maps gave Republicans a 10-3 advantage, he said “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
1) Common Cause/League of Women Voters case
These were two separate federal court cases that were ultimately combined into one. The argument is that the 2016 maps constituted “one of the worst partisan gerrymanders in modern American history” by creating districts such that Democrats could win the majority of votes statewide but still be relegated to three congressional seats7.
For reference, here are the three.
- District 1 (northeast, U.S. Rep. G. K. Butterfield of Wilson)
- District 4 (RTP, U.S. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill)
- District 12 (Charlotte, U.S. Rep. Alma Adams of Winston-Salem/Charlotte).
In early January, a federal court ruled that the 2016 Congressional maps were an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander and ordered the maps to be immediately redrawn.
N.C. Republicans quickly filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking them to decide the case and put the district redrawing on hold. It was granted on January 18.
In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to use gerrymandering cases in Wisconsin and Maryland to set precedent. That sent everything back to the District Court level.
In late August 2018, a U.S. District Court panel ruled that the North Carolina Congressional lines were an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The judges even contemplated requiring North Carolina to redraw lines and hold the primary in November, and then a general election for Congress in January.
The judges cited a plan from Dr. Jowei Chen 57 times in their 300-page ruling as a better way to draw the lines.
Here’s what that looks like.
Though conditions have changed, this alignment conceivably would elect 7 Republicans and 6 Democrats.
In September 2018, the court decided to allow the 2018 elections to proceed as planned under the current boundaries.
That leaves plenty of time for more major court rulings before 2020. The U.S. Supreme Court decided to weigh in on it. Hearings are expected in March 2019, with a decision sometime over the summer.
This case will end up deciding the one below.
2) Harris v. Cooper8
In this case, the same people who challenged the 2011 Congressional districts sued again, saying the new maps were an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.
A panel of federal judges ruled that they could not judge whether it was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander because there is no court precedent for how to test that9. The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it still sits. It’s likely nothing will happen until some of the other cases are decided. See documents.
2019 and beyond: What happens next?
The North Carolina Congressional district case will settle a huge legal issue: Can state legislatures use partisanship to determine voting districts? And if so, to what extent?
Look for a landmark decision to be made this summer.
Note: I’m planning to update this story as more decisions get made.