Unless you’re a political junkie, the expression “joint committee meeting on redistricting” probably doesn't get your blood pumping. But if you care about voting rights, gerrymandering, and the makeup of the General Assembly, pay attention, because the outcome of that committee could have major implications for more than two dozen legislative districts in North Carolina—and even has the potential to undo the GOP's veto-proof supermajority.
First, context. The committee meeting this afternoon came out of a June Supreme Court decision, in which the high court upheld a lower federal court's decision that twenty-eight state legislative districts in North Carolina were illegally racially gerrymandered, essentially packing black voters into districts that diluted their voting power elsewhere. SCOTUS, however, didn't order the maps to be redrawn or for the state to hold special elections in the gerrymandered districts. Instead, it threw the case back down to the lower court to oversee the drawing of new the maps and to determine whether to hold special elections in those same legislative districts this year.
Which brings us to the joint committee on redistricting. This afternoon, legislators gathered for an update from the House and Senate Committees on Redistricting, whose members will be tasked with redrawing the gerrymandered districts. Tomorrow, a three-judge panel in Greensboro will hear from all of the plaintiffs involved in the case, discuss a timeline for the maps to be drawn, and take up the matter of special elections. At this afternoon's meeting, Republican Representative David Lewis, who is cochairing the House committee on redistricting, said he hopes the map-redrawing process will be completed by mid-November.
But if you’re holding your breath for an inevitable political shakeup once the maps are done, not so fast.
For starters, the two GOP cochairs of the committee—Senator Ralph Hise of Mitchell and the aforementioned Representative Lewis of Harnett—were both involved in the 2011 committee responsible for drawing the very maps the Supreme Court just ruled were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.
And, as Republican leaders confirmed at this afternoon's meeting, they will make use of the services of Tom Hofeller, a GOP consultant involved in the same mapmaking process back in 2011. When pressed if Hofeller's help will be available to Democrats, Lewis replied that the "short answer is no."
For more context on Hofeller’s role in the legislature's mapmaking process, consider the first paragraph of this excellent 2012 Atlantic article:
Every 10 years, after U.S. census workers have fanned out across the nation, a snowy-haired gentleman by the name of Tom Hofeller takes up anew his quest to destroy Democrats. He packs his bag and his laptop with its special Maptitude software, kisses his wife of 46 years, pats his West Highland white terrier, Kara, and departs his home in Alexandria, Virginia, for a United States that he will help carve into a jigsaw of disunity.
Issues of gerrymandering in the wake of the 2010 midterm election—when Republicans pummeled Democrats to regain control of the U.S. House and make historic state legislative gains—continue to be a source of existential concern for Democrats, as the party that controls state legislatures tends to draw legislative and congressional districts to its own advantage. A recent report from the Brennan Center found that gerrymandering has netted Republicans at least sixteen or seventeen seats in the U.S. House; half of the seats, the report says, come from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, the most gerrymandered states in the union.
While racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, partisan gerrymandering is not—at least not yet. Later this year, the Supreme Court is set to hear a case out of Wisconsin that addresses just this issue: whether legislatures can draw lines explicitly to boost the dominant party’s political fortunes. If the court rules it cannot, then there’s a good chance whatever lines the N.C. General Assembly comes up with this year will soon be null and void, as they’re quite clearly being drawn with a partisan advantage in mind.
Even so, special elections in the new legislative districts this year could be consequential. Democrats need just three seats in the House and six in the Senate to break the General Assembly’s Republican supermajority, handing the Democratic governor enough power to sustain his vetoes.