WASHINGTON — A North Carolina state court on Tuesday rejected claims by voting rights advocates that Republican gerrymanders of the state’s political maps were unconstitutional.
The unanimous ruling, by a panel of two Republican judges and one Democrat, set up a final battle over the maps in the seven-member state Supreme Court, where Democratic justices hold a slim edge.
Voting rights groups said they would file an appeal immediately. One, Common Cause North Carolina, said the plaintiffs had presented “overwhelming evidence” that the maps were stacked to favor Republicans.
“The evidence clearly showed that Republican legislative leaders brazenly ignored legal requirements designed to protect voting rights for Black North Carolinians,” the group’s executive director, Bob Phillips, said in a statement. “If allowed to stand, these extreme gerrymanders would cause profound and lasting harm to the people of our state.”
The Republican chairman of the redistricting committee in the State Senate, Warren Daniel, called the decision a sign that “the people of our state should be able to move on with the 2022 electoral process.” The state’s primary elections were pushed back from March to May to make time for legal challenges to the maps.
Redistricting at a Glance
Every 10 years, each state in the U.S is required to redraw the boundaries of their congressional and state legislative districts in a process known as redistricting.
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Mr. Daniel charged that any Supreme Court reversal would be suspect because one of the Democratic justices, Anita Earls, was elected with the help of a donation from a Democratic Party redistricting group. An affiliate of that group, the National Redistricting Foundation, is funding legal action by one of the plaintiffs in the gerrymander case.
In their ruling, in Wake County Superior Court in Raleigh, N.C., the three judges agreed that both the legislative and congressional maps were “a result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting.” They also alluded to the political harm that caused, citing their “disdain for having to deal with issues that potentially lead to results incompatible with democratic principles and subject our state to ridicule.”
But the judges dismissed the plaintiffs’ claims that the maps violated the state Constitution, that they were deliberately created to disenfranchise Black voters and that they broke longstanding rules for drawing political districts.
The case involves new political districts approved in December by the Republican-dominated State Legislature that would give Republicans an overwhelming political advantage in a state balanced almost evenly between Republican and Democratic voters.
The new congressional map would give Republicans control of as many as 11 of the state’s 14 House seats, compared to the party’s current eight-to-five edge. (North Carolina gained a fourteenth district as a result of population gains in the 2020 census.) The maps would also re-establish much of the lopsided advantage that Republicans enjoyed in the House and State Senate as a result of gerrymanders approved when those maps were redrawn in 2011.
Understand How U.S. Redistricting Works
What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.
Why is it important this year? With an extremely slim Democratic margin in the House of Representatives, simply redrawing maps in a few key states could determine control of Congress in 2022.
How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.
Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.
If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.
What is gerrymandering? It refers to the intentional distortion of district maps to give one party an advantage. While all districts must have roughly the same population, mapmakers can make subjective decisions to create a partisan tilt.
Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.
Want to know more about redistricting and gerrymandering? Times reporters answer your most pressing questions here.
The maps also appear likely to reduce minority representation in both the Legislature and the House of Representatives. Republicans say that is but a collateral effect of the new district lines, which they say were drawn without regard to the state’s racial makeup.
Good-government groups have complained about what they call an increasing political tinge to judicial rulings since 2016, when the Republican-dominated State Legislature made elections to the bench partisan. The challenge to the new political districts is widely seen as a test of that decision. In 2019, a Democratic majority in the same Wake County court delivered a landmark ruling that the old Republican maps violated clauses in the state Constitution guaranteeing free elections, free speech and equal treatment of citizens.
The ruling on Tuesday, while unanimous, was notable for its dismissal of many of those tenets. The judges rejected claims that the maps violated the free elections clause, saying past courts had defined its wording narrowly and rarely upheld claims that it had been violated. And they implied that partisan gerrymanders were in fact constitutional, citing an aside by judges in a 2002 state court case contending that drawing maps for political gain was acceptable.