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The 2022 midterm elections are the first of the Biden era. They're also the first since the 2020 census, which means there are new congressional districts. There are U.S. Senate races in the Carolinas as well, along with many state and local races.

Judges say GOP-drawn NC maps can stand; appeal is coming

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A three-judge panel in Raleigh on Tuesday said congressional and state legislative maps drawn by the Republican-controlled General Assembly can stand.

The decision came after a four-day trial last week. The plaintiffs, which include Common Cause and the League of Conservation Voters, said they would appeal the decision quickly.

The appeal will be fast-tracked to the state Supreme Court, where Democrats have a 4-3 advantage. The three-judge panel that made Tuesday's ruling was comprised of two Republicans and one Democrat. The decision was unanimous.

In their decision, the judges agreed with the plaintiffs that the state's political maps were skewed to favor Republicans. They dissected the maps in detail, noting for instance the 9th Congressional District in Charlotte unnecessarily packs Democratic voters while excluding Republican-leaning precincts.

The judges wrote that "we conclude based upon a careful review of all of the evidence that the Enacted Maps are a result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting."

But the panel said it did not have the discretion to overturn them.

The judges said that North Carolina’s state constitution gives the legislature the power to draw those maps, with almost no guidance or rules.

In its decision, the panel said they had "not been asked to eliminate all partisan gerrymandering, only "extreme" partisan gerrymandering. "In short, we are asked to decide how much partisanship is 'extreme.' In attempting to do so, we necessarily require 'especially clear standards.' "

The panel said that if it struck down the maps, then the judicial branch could also tell the governor that his political appointees should also resemble the political makeup of the state.

The judges also said that the filing period for the May primary will begin Feb. 24.

The current congressional map – passed at the end of last year – gives Republicans the advantage in 10 of 14 seats. The plaintiffs said the maps for the state House and Senate gave the GOP the inside track on keeping their legislative majorities and possibly winning super-majorities that would allow Republicans to override vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

During the trial, attorneys for the plaintiffs called on expert witnesses who said the GOP maps were extreme partisan gerrymanders. They included University of Michigan political science professor Jowei Chen, who said a fair map would have far more toss-up seats.

Attorneys for the Republican legislative leaders countered that the North Carolina constitution has no parameters on what is and isn’t a fair map. And they seized on Chen’s analysis that said the most likely congressional map – based on 1,000 randomly drawn computer simulations – would produce nine Republican seats and five Democratic seats.

In 2019, after a three-judge panel ordered the legislature to draw new maps, Republican leaders decided not to appeal.

During the map-making process, Republicans said they wanted to emphasize keeping municipalities and counties whole. That usually worked to their advantage.

By keeping cities whole, that allowed the GOP to pack Democratic voters into districts where Democrats would win easily. Mapmakers divided Mecklenburg, Guilford and Wake counties into three congressional districts each, even though Mecklenburg and Wake only needed to be split once and Guilford could have been inside one district.

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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.