Voting rights advocates and lawmakers were hit with a double whammy Monday: remedial legislative maps drawn to correct extreme partisan gerrymandering were accepted by a state Superior Court three-judge panel for the 2020 elections, and the 2016 congressional map was struck down.
The two decisions were anxiously awaited by all ahead of looming election deadlines, and reactions to the news were mixed; advocates and progressive voters praised the court for tossing the congressional map, but they were hesitant to call the new legislative maps a win.
“Today’s decision by the court granting an injunction in Harper v. Lewis is a welcome victory for the people of North Carolina,” said Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina. “We hope it is a sign that the state’s egregiously gerrymandered congressional districts will ultimately be struck down and redrawn to be completely free from partisan gerrymandering. As the landmark ruling in Common Cause v. Lewis made clear last month, partisan gerrymandering violates the constitutional rights of North Carolina voters, and it must end.”
The Harper case involves a partisan gerrymandering challenge to the state’s congressional map – Common Cause NC is not a named party in the case, but has an interest in the outcome because it has been fighting for nonpartisan redistricting for decades.
Bryan Warner, a spokesperson for Common Cause NC, said Tuesday the organization didn’t yet have a statement on the court’s ruling in the case in which it is a party regarding the legislative maps.
“Our attorneys are reviewing the court’s decision,” he added.
State legislative maps
The Common Cause case was a challenge to legislative maps over partisan gerrymandering, and the plaintiffs were successful – a three-judge panel tossed those maps and ordered lawmakers redraw them without partisan data and in full view of the public.
There wasn’t consensus among litigants or lawmakers about the final remedial product in Common Cause, but the judges in the case said lawmakers followed their instructions, so a third party didn’t need to redraw the districts.
Senate Republicans appeared pleased that the judges accepted their new maps, according to a news release from Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Burke).
“The bipartisan process that we used to create new districts was the most transparent in history,” he stated. “Every effort was made to work together with our Democratic colleagues to create fair, nonpartisan, and court-compliant districts. I am glad that the court recognized that and approved the new Senate and House districts. I hope we can now finally put this long, absurd, partisan court battle behind us.”
The North Carolina Democratic Party, a named plaintiff in the Common Cause suit, also praised the court for its decisions Monday.
“Today’s decisions are major victories for all North Carolinians, who will now elect their legislative and Congressional representatives under fairer maps,” said Chairman Wayne Goodwin in a news release. “Voters should choose their representatives not the other way around, and we hope after today’s rulings that North Carolina Republicans will finally give up their hyper-partisan, unconstitutional efforts to cling onto power by robbing North Carolinians of free and fair elections.”
The court’s second decision to throw out the congressional map is a little more complicated but was welcomed news to those continuing to fight for constitutional elections next year.
The three-judge panel hasn’t yet ordered lawmakers to draw a new congressional map, but indicated it would be in their interest to initiate that process on their own, particularly if they didn’t want to have to move the 2020 primaries.
The judges, Joseph Crosswhite, Paul Ridgeway and Alma Hinton, pointed to the remedial process in the Common Cause case as proof that lawmakers can enact new districts in a short amount of time and “in a transparent and bipartisan manner.”
Eric Holder Jr., former U.S. Attorney and current head of the National Redistricting Foundation – which is supporting Harper litigation – called the decision an important victory for North Carolina voters.
“For nearly a decade, Republicans have forced the people of North Carolina to vote in districts that were manipulated for their own partisan advantage,” he said in a statement. “Now – finally – the era of Republican gerrymandering in the state is coming to an end.”
Democracy North Carolina Communications Director Jen Jones said the back-to-back rulings were in favor of fairer maps for 2020, something for which the group has long advocated.
“After years of having their political power packed and cracked by state lawmakers, next year voters are one step closer to choosing their politicians, and not the other way around,” Jones said.
U.S. Representatives Alma S. Adams, G. K. Butterfield and David E. Price, the Democratic members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation, issued a joint statement in support of the ruling handed down by the three-judge panel.
“The court’s decision reaffirms our long-held belief that the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly engaged in extreme racial and partisan gerrymandering, such that congressional districts were designed to favor the Republican majority and disenfranchise voters,” it states. “We applaud the court’s decision. After nearly a decade of illegal districts, voters deserve fair maps so their voices can be heard.”
Limited options for GOP defendants
It’s not clear how Republican lawmakers will react, but they have a few choices, according to a blog post from Rick Hasen, a UC Irvine election law expert.
“They could appeal the granting of this preliminary injunction in the state Supreme Court, though they are not likely to get a very good reception there given both the egregious nature of the gerrymander (it was the subject of the Rucho case at the U.S. Supreme Court deciding only federal constitutional issues) and the Democratic lean of the state Supreme Court,” he wrote. “Alternatively, the state defendants could decide to redraw the district lines now, knowing that in doing so they might end up getting something approved which is more positive from their viewpoint than what might be done with a special master.”
If lawmakers don’t move on their own, the court noted it could delay the primary date (currently set for March 3) for the congressional elections or all of the state’s 2020 primaries, including for offices other than congressional representatives.
The case is unusual and expected to move quickly, not just because of the impending election deadlines, but also because of the extensive record that already has been established in federal court over the same type of challenge.