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Here's What The Latest Ruling On NC Legislative Districts Means For 2020 Elections

Of the 1,400 registered voters in Marshville, only about 360 submitted their ballots.

A three-judge panel in Raleigh on Tuesday unanimously ruled that North Carolina’s House and Senate maps were drawn to maximize Republicans' power and are unconstitutional.

The ruling throws out the maps for the 2020 elections and has major implications for the state’s political future. WFAE political reporter Steve Harrison joins "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf to talk about what the ruling means.

Lisa Worf: So, earlier this summer, there was another ruling about gerrymandering, and the Republican leadership won that case. They lost this one. How are these two rulings different?

Steve Harrison: So, yeah, this is a little complicated, right? There have been so many lawsuits over North Carolina maps that it’s getting hard to keep track of this.

So, earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that it would not get involved in partisan gerrymandering cases. It said it’s too difficult to draw the line about when a map goes too far.

Chief Justice John Roberts essentially said this is a state issue.

And that’s what happened yesterday.

[Related: NC Judges Toss Districts Drawn For GOP Advantage]

The group Common Cause had lost the gerrymandering lawsuit at the Supreme Court, but it had also filed a lawsuit in Superior Court over the state’s legislative maps. And it won.

Here’s what Bob Phillips of Common Cause said about the decision: "For the first time this decade, North Carolina voters will be voting for state legislators and maps that are constitutional, that are fair."

And to make things more complicated, these state maps were drawn in 2017 – after the 2011 maps were found to be unconstitutional. The Republicans drew both of those.

Worf: In their ruling, what did the judges say and what does it mean going forward?

Harrison: The three judges – two Democrats and a Republican – were harsh.

They wrote the General Assembly used “surgical precision” to “carefully craft maps” that cracked and packed Democrats to dilute their strength.

They said that in many elections, it’s the maps – not the will of the voters – that decides what happens.

The maps have been redrawn so many times after litigation, and the judges found some districts were constitutional. They listed the counties that had to be redrawn – that includes Mecklenburg.

The court gave the legislature just two weeks to draw new maps. And they emphasized that the mapmaking process has to be in the open.

Here’s what attorney Stanton Jones said about that: "Perhaps most importantly for the legislative process, and for the people of North Carolina, is that the court’s order says that the entire remedial process must be conducted in full public view, including that all map drawing must occur at public hearings."

Worf: So, two weeks to draw new maps. That’s not a lot of time. What is the Republicans' position?

Harrison: Senate leader Phil Berger released a statement last night that suggested they aren’t going to appeal.

He disagreed with the decision and said he thought Democrats were just turning to state courts to get the maps they want after losing at the U.S. Supreme Court.

But here is what he said: "To settle this matter once and for all, we will follow the court’s instruction and move forward with adoption of a non-partisan map.”

Their next option would be to appeal to the state Supreme Court, but the Democrats have a 6-1 advantage. And the U.S. Supreme Court just said the state courts – or the state legislatures – is where all these issues need to be sorted out.

And for a little context:

Under these maps, the Democrats were able to break the Republican’s super-majorities in both houses. And in Mecklenburg there was a huge "blue wave," and the gerrymandered districts couldn’t protect Republicans.

Five GOP House and Senate members lost. We don't know how Mecklenburg districts may be redrawn. One possibility is the Senate map, which that's the map that protected Dan Bishop, who of course is running in the Ninth District today. His district starts in south Charlotte and goes into Matthews and Mint Hill. That’s one that could be changing.

Worf: There was intrigue during the trail over the deceased map-make Tom Hofeller. How did that play out?

Harrison: Tom Hofeller was a master at drawing political maps, and the Republicans hired him to help them draw the House and Senate maps.

He died last year, and his estranged daughter turned over his hard drives and other computer files to Common Cause. Attorneys for the Republicans tried to keep those files out of the trial.

In the 357-page ruling, Hofeller’s name shows up 201 times.

The judges wrote that “files from Dr. Hofeller’s storage devices provide direct evidence of Dr. Hofeller’s predominant focus on maximizing Republican partisan advantage in creating the 2017 plans.”

Hofeller has also been part of separate litigation in New York over the Trump administration’s plans to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census. Hofeller has said that having that question would help Republicans.

Worf: With the census next year, this is a crucial year for map-making in North Carolina and nationwide. How does that impact 2020?

Harrison: It’s hard to overstate how big of a deal this is.

Next year, we have the census, and after that, every state will re-draw their Congressional maps, as well as their legislative maps.

And who draws those maps? In most cases it's state legislatures.

So if the Democrats can win one chamber in 2020, they will have a seat at the table. 

North Carolina may get a 14th congressional seat after the census. Where will that be? The legislature will decide that.

This ruling didn’t apply to the congressional map. But Common Cause thinks the ruling will ultimately apply to the map.

Worf: Common Cause lost at the U.S. Supreme Court but won yesterday. What else did they say?

The group is happy obviously. But Bob Phillips – the group’s executive director – wants additional reform. One option is to create an independent group that would draw maps. That’s what states like California and Arizona do.

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.