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Awaiting U.S. Supreme Court Ruling, A Primer On NC Redistricting Case

The Supreme Court ruled the 12th (orange) and 1st (yellow) districts were illegal because race played too large a role in their creation.
The serpentine 1st and 12th congressional districts.

North Carolina is awaiting word from the nation’s highest court on whether its election can go forward as planned, or whether lawmakers must redraw congressional districts in less than two weeks. A lower court struck down the state’s 2011 congressional redistricting plan on Friday, and North Carolina is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to put that decision on hold.  WFAE’s Michael Tomsic joined Marshall Terry to sort through all this.

What’s the state’s argument?

That changing the districts people vote in this close to an election will unleash chaos. In their Supreme Court filing, North Carolina’s attorneys point out hundreds of people have already voted by mail in the upcoming primary. They say there’s no way lawmakers, who are not even in session, can come to Raleigh and speed through a complicated redistricting process by next Friday, as the lower court ordered them to do.

Why did the lower court set that tight a deadline?

Because “to force the plaintiffs to vote again under the unconstitutional plan – and to do so in a presidential year, when voter turnout is highest – constitutes irreparable harm to them.”

The federal three-judge panel in this case ruled the 1st and 12th congressional districts are racial gerrymanders. (The 12th includes Charlotte.) In essence, Republican lawmakers put too much emphasis on racial quotas when they redrew them in 2011. They increased the percentage of African-American voters in district 1 from 48 percent to 53 percent, and in district 12 from 44 percent to 51 percent.   

How much is this about politics?

It’s really about how politics and race intersect.

The party in power after each census gets to redraw the boundaries we vote in. Democrats in the past, and Republicans this time, use it as a chance to solidify their control. Basically, they pack a bunch of the other party’s voters in a couple districts, and then all the surrounding ones are easier to win.

And that’s legal?

Believe it or not, yes. It’s perfectly legal to draw maps for political gain. In fact, that’s one of the ways North Carolina’s attorneys defended it in court – we were just trying to win more Republican seats.

But this kind of thing becomes illegal when it’s too heavily focused on race rather than politics. Now, that can be a blurry line because African-Americans disproportionately vote for Democrats. But in this case, the three-judge panel ruled that race dominated.

So did more Republicans get elected as a result?

Absolutely. There used to be seven Democrats and six Republicans representing North Carolina in the U.S. House. Pretty balanced. In the election right after the changes, that went to nine Republicans and four Democrats.

In that same election, North Carolina had one of the most competitive presidential votes in the country. So it’s not like there was a big change in how Republican or Democratic the state was. It was all about the maps.

But there have been other rulings that the maps are perfectly fine.  

In fact, the U.S. Justice Department cleared the maps in 2011. And in a state court lawsuit, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the redistricting plan twice.

This is another reason North Carolina’s attorneys say the U.S. Supreme Court needs to step in – to clear all this up. 

How soon will that happen?

The court has given the plaintiffs until Tuesday afternoon to file their response to the state’s case.

Chief Justice John Roberts is over these kinds of emergency requests for North Carolina and several surrounding states. He could rule on it himself or refer it to the whole court.