Greetings from the thrilling world of legislative redistricting, where state Republicans and Democrats are hard at work trying to nail down maps that pass constitutional muster.
Yesterday, members of the Joint House and Senate Redistricting Committee met to adopt rules for redrawing lines for the twenty-eight legislative districts ruled unconstitutional last year
. The conclusion: mapmakers can consider partisan advantage when they draw the new lines, but not race—two criteria that had Democratic lawmakers up in arms.
"The districts were declared unconstitutional because of race," said state Representative Mickey Micheaux, the civil rights veteran and colorful Democrat from Durham. "If you don't use race to correct it, how are you going to show the court that they're not still unconstitutional?"
It's yet another twist in a long mapmaking saga that culminated in June, when the Supreme Court upheld a lower federal court's decision that twenty-eight state legislative districts in North Carolina were racially gerrymandered, which is unconstitutional. SCOTUS 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 handle the new mapmaking process and determine whether to hold special elections in those same legislative districts next March. A three-judge panel recently decided not to hold special elections for the redrawn districts, but it did set a September 1 timeline for the new maps—about two months earlier than GOP leaders wanted.
Now the redistricting committee has less than a month to meet its deadline, and pressure is mounting on both sides. At a committee meeting a few weeks ago, GOP leaders confirmed
that they'll use political consultant Tom Hofeller to redraw the maps, much to the consternation of state Democrats. Hofeller, a North Carolina-based redistricting guru, helped draw the lines of the gerrymandered maps the Supreme Court just ruled were unconstitutional (he will be netting $50,000 for his services this time around). Hofeller's strategic and highly technical crusade to draw maps that favor Republicans is no secret; in 2012, an Atlantic article
outlined his "quest to destroy Democrats." Perhaps it's unsurprising, then, that GOP leaders in the General Assembly have also made clear to whom Hofeller's services will not be available: Democrats.
Nevertheless, state Democrats are still expected to make gains in the 2018 midterm elections—thanks, Trump—and they don't need much to tip the balance away from total Republican control. Democrats need just three seats in the House and six in the Senate to break the General Assembly’s Republican supermajority, handing Democratic governor Roy Cooper enough power to sustain his vetoes.
Republicans know this. Democrats know this. And the maps still need to be drawn.
Yesterday's four-hour-long meeting centered on a number of highly technical criteria to use when lawmakers draw the maps. In total, the committees approved six rules: contiguity
(legislative districts need to be connected, but it's fine for them to cross through water); compactness
(committees should try to draw legislative districts that improve current districts' compactness); fewer split precincts
; municipal boundaries
(the committees can consider city and town boundaries when drawing the maps); incumbency protection
(maps can be drawn to protect incumbents); election data
(mapmakers can consider past election data when drawing lines); and no consideration of racial data
(mapmakers can't consider race in drawing lines).
Democrats weren’t pleased with the rules, which were adopted mainly on party lines. They were particularly upset about the racial data, incumbency protection, and election data criteria.
Democratic senator Terry Van Duyn of Buncombe told her Republican colleagues that speakers in a recent public hearing were explicit about their desire to remove partisan politics for the mapmaking process. "What people were asking for was districts that represent the voters, not districts that represent a political party," she said.
And Democrats were similarly incensed by the provision removing race considerations, which Republican rules chairman David Lewis said he thought was consistent with the Supreme Court's ruling on the maps: "The only way to comply," Lewis said, "is not to consider race in that process.”
But Democrats wondered how they would be able to tell if the new maps were also illegal racial gerrymanders if they didn't factor in race.
"Do you understand that, by not using race, you're defeating your own purpose?" Micheaux pointed out.
After the meeting, N.C. Democratic Party chairman Wayne Goodwin said in a statement that the criteria were "even more evidence that the unconstitutionally-elected Republican caucus is more concerned with protecting their majority than giving North Carolina fair maps. General Assembly Republicans want to draw ‘inherently political’ boundaries. They want to protect their members who were unconstitutionally elected in the first place. They rejected every Democratic amendment aimed at ensuring every North Carolinian has a voice. And they are giving the same GOP dark arts gerrymandering consultant who drew the original unconstitutional maps $50,000 of taxpayer money to do it again. Republicans have learned nothing, and unfortunately, NC voters are the ones that will continue to pay the price.”
Democrats may not like what Republicans are up to, but that doesn't mean they can stop them. 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.