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U.S. Supreme Court To Hear North Carolina Gerrymandering Case

Phil Roeder / Flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear arguments in the case Common Cause v. Rucho – a political gerrymandering case with national implications.

The plaintiffs, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, say the state’s 2016 Congressional map is the most extreme gerrymandered maps in the country. It gives Republicans the advantage in 10 of the state’s 13 seats – despite North Carolina having more than 500,000 more Democrats than Republicans. Political reporter Steve Harrison joined WFAE's Mark Rumsey to discuss the case.

The 2016 North Carolina congressional districts map.
Credit ncleg.net
The 2016 North Carolina congressional districts map.

Mark Rumsey: Good morning, Steve

Steve Harrison: Good morning, Mark.

Rumsey: This has been a long battle, so let’s start at the beginning – tell me how this map came to be.

Harrison: In 2011, the Republicans took over the legislature, and they created a congressional map that helped them win 10 of 13 seats. But that map was declared an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, so the Republican leadership tried again in 2016.

Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews – he’s no longer in the legislature – and Rep. David Lewis had a goal. Keep the 10-3 split, but do it in a way that didn’t rely on race. And they did that, and Lewis was really happy.

Here is his famous – or infamous - quote from three years ago speaking about the new map.

"I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander which is not against the law. I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it's possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats."

The plaintiffs in the case say this is a smoking gun. In fact, one of the attorneys for the League of Women Voters said it should be in the dictionary next to the definition of smoking gun.

[Related: Supreme Court To Hear NC Gerrymandering Case. Will 'Smoking Gun' Admission Matter?]

Rumsey: So what does this map look like – and how does it help Republicans?

Harrison: So there are two terms in gerrymandering – cracking and packing. This map does both.

Packing is when you place as many of one party’s voters as you can in a district. In North Carolina, this wasn’t that hard for Republicans, since Democrats tend to concentrate in cities. So in the 12th District, which includes almost all of Charlotte, Alma Adams won by 46 percentage points. 

The other tactic is called cracking. A lot of cities were cracked. Asheville was cracked, and so was Fayetteville.

That’s where you take a concentration of voters – in this case Democrats – and you split them into two districts. Greensboro is a Democratic city, but it was cracked into the 6th and 13th districts. Those are both held by Republicans.

Rumsey: Last year’s election was a big year for Democrats – how did this map hold up?

Harrison: Well, we still don't know, do we? Right now, Republicans have nine seats and the Democrats have three. That last seat is in the 9th District, and because of absentee mail fraud in Bladen County, there is a new election.

But before the state called for a new election, Republican Mark Harris was ahead by 905 votes.

Democrats said, look, we just had a Blue Wave election where we picked up 40 seats nationally, and we couldn’t even win a single new seat in North Carolina.

And the Republicans said, hey, you came close! This map can’t be all that bad.

Rumsey: Do we have any indication of how the court will rule?

Harrison: We don’t. But it’s important to remember that getting the Supreme Court to hear this case is a victory for the Republicans.

In August, a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, saying the state needed new maps immediately. If the court declined to hear the case, we probably would have new maps right now.

There was a similar case, Gill v. Whitford, about Wisconsin’s state house map, which favors Republicans.

In Wisconsin, the court sent that back to a lower court and will hear arguments again this summer – after it decides on North Carolina.

Here is a question from conservative justice Neil Gorsuch during the Wisconsin arguments.

What criteria would a state need to know in order to avoid having every district and every case and every election subject to litigation? Because the standards given in the lower court here was, well, a little bit of partisan symmetry problem, a little bit of an efficiency gap problem, not a real set of criteria.

And that’s the defense’s argument. They say, where do you draw the line? Will every map be contested if one party has a slight advantage over the other?

Rumsey: And what do the plaintiffs say about that?

Harrison: They say, look, it’s absurd to say that every map will be contested.

They say maps are going tilt to one side or another – it’s impossible to draw a perfectly balanced map. But they argue North Carolina didn’t even try. They feel that the state's primary focus was to be unfair and that there aren’t many maps this extreme anywhere else.

And remember, the 2020 Census is coming up. New maps are going to be drawn.  This case is expected to help determine how far state legislatures can go and this case is going to help determine that. 

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.