Updated 10 a.m. July 16
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that North Carolina’s Congressional map was a political gerrymander – but justices said that did not violate the Constitution, and they refused to overturn the map. Now, a second challenge to political mapmaking in North Carolina is underway – this time over the state’s legislative maps.
On the first day of a trial over North Carolina’s state legislative maps, Common Cause and Democrats said political gerrymandered maps made it impossible for them to win majorities in the House and Senate.
"This case is about how North Carolina’s legislative districts have been drawn, intentionally and systematically, to help Republicans win -- and to minimize the political power of Democratic voters," said Stanton Jones, the attorney representing Common Cause.
In last year’s wave election for Democrats, Democrats won a little more than half of the statewide vote for the legislature.
Democrats broke the GOP’s super-majorities in the state House and Senate, but Democratic state Rep. Graig Meyer of Hillsborough testified that the Republicans' maps were too much of an obstacle.
"To win the majority in the North Carolina H ouse, we would have to overcome significant structural disadvantages based on the way the districts are drawn," Meyer said.
In the Senate, Republicans won 58% of the seats, and 54% of the seats in the House.
The fact that Democrats gained seats – and found candidates to run in all 50 Senate races – is a sign that the state’s map isn’t unfairly rigged against them, defense lawyer Phil Strach said testimony will show.
"In fact, their own data is going to show — and this court is going to see — that they can win super majorities under the 2017 plans," Strach said. "So the plaintiffs repeatedly claim they are shut out and can never win back the legislature. This evidence alone simply demonstrates that is not true."
The current maps were drawn in 2017 after the GOP’s 2011 state maps were thrown out when the U.S. Supreme Court found the maps to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.
In addition to saying that the new maps allowed Democrats to gain seats, the defense noted that Democrats had drawn maps to their advantage for decades. Strach asked Common Cause executive director Bob Phillips why his organization didn’t immediately file a lawsuit against the 2017 maps.
Phillips said he Common Cause didn’t file a lawsuit immediately, in part because it was focused on its federal lawsuit over the state’s Congressional map.
The trial – before a three-judge panel – will likely focus on Thomas Hofeller, a Republican mapmaker who died in 2018.
After he died, his estranged daughter went through his computer files, and turned them over to Common Cause.
Common cause contends that Hofeller helped draw the 2017 maps, and he illegally used racial data when drawing them.
Strach, the defense attorney, had tried to keep the Hofeller files out of the trial.
"All plaintiffs have been able to muster your honor is an attempt to create a bogeyman out of a dead map drawer who drew maps in this state," Strach said. "Anytime you hear the name Hofeller, know this is a sideshow by plaintiffs attempting to distract you of the weakness in their case before you."
The General Assembly will draw new state legislative maps — and new Congressional maps — after the 2020 Census.
If Democrats can get more favorable court-ordered maps, they think they can win a majority in either the House or the Senate.
The trial is expected to last a week or two.