US midterms: North Carolina’s gerrymandered congressional map unconstitutional and must be redrawn, judges rule

'This case is not just about North Carolina. It is about the future health of our redistricting processes.'

Clark Mindock
New York
Monday 15 October 2018 15:10 BST
North Carolina's gerrymandered congressional map could now be brought before the US Supreme Court
North Carolina's gerrymandered congressional map could now be brought before the US Supreme Court (REUTERS)

Federal judges have struck down North Carolina’s Republican-gerrymandered congressional map as illegal for a second time, in a decision that could leave officials in the state scrambling just months before the midterm elections in November.

The three judges on Monday recognised in their ruling that primary races had already concluded — and so, candidates had already been chosen — in the state, but said they were reluctant to let voting take place with a map that had already been deemed unconstitutional twice now.

The ruling is the latest development in a case that fair elections advocates say features such drastically gerrymandered districts that it could represent one of the clearest chances for the Supreme Court to clarify the constitutionality of extreme partisan gerrymandering in America in general, and impact congressional maps across the country.

North Carolina’s congressional map — created in 2011 following the US census the year before — received its first major blow in 2016, when a federal court deemed it unconstitutional, saying that the map — which essentially locks in 10 Republican districts and three Democratic ones — was racially gerrymandered. The state legislature then responded by passing a congressional map plan that left the unconstitutional map virtually unchanged — but argued that the second map was motivated by politics, not race.

The US Supreme Court asked the three-judge panel to take another look at the map in North Carolina after a June decision that sidestepped the issue of whether extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. That ruling found that the plaintiffs did not have standing to bring the lawsuit forward.

It is likely that politicians in North Carolina will now attempt to take the case to the Supreme Court as well, but it is not clear that Republicans in the state will be able to find a victory there even if the higher court takes up the case. That is because the Supreme Court currently has just eight members — and the partisan makeup of the bench will be roughly split until the Senate confirms a new justice.

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In the decision for the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge James A Wynn Jr wrote that the plaintiffs who brought the North Carolina suit forward did have standing to do so, and that the judges’ earlier view had not changed that the congressional map had been drawn with improper partisan goals.

“We continue to lament that North Carolina voters now have been deprived of a constitutional congressional districting plan — and, therefore, congressional district plan — for six years and three election cycles,” Mr Wynn wrote in the court’s ruling.

He continued: “To the extent allowing the General Assembly another opportunity to draw a remedial plan would further delay electing representatives under a constitutional districting plan, that delay weighs heavily against giving the General Assembly another such opportunity”.

Partisan gerrymandering in the United States was exacerbated after 2010, when a wave of tea-party support boosted Republican candidates to seats of power in statehouses throughout the country, according to a report from New York University’s Brennan Centre for Justice published earlier this year. Those efforts at redistricting stood out from previous efforts to gerrymandering, as a trove of data and maps representing voter habits had made it possible to draw district lines at a nearly surgical rate.

Thomas Wolfe, the Brennan Centre’s counsel with the organisations Democracy Program, told The Independent that the effects of that 2011 redistricting presents a real threat to American electoral systems — and said that a Supreme Court ruling on the situation in North Carolina could have a profound effect on not just current electoral maps, but also maps that will be drawn after the 2020 census in two years.

“If the Supreme Court does not step in and put some limits on what happened in North Carolina, than it runs the risk of directly or indirectly declaring open season in the round of redistricting that will start in 2021”, Mr Wolfe said.

He continued: “This case is not just about North Carolina. It is about the future health of our redistricting processes. If that doesn’t happen, we may see partisan gerrymanders that are even fiercer than the ones we now have, and our democracy can’t withstand that.”

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