BY WILL DORAN UPDATED JANUARY 03, 2022 3:35 PM
The gerrymandering trial over North Carolina’s new political maps kicked off Monday, with lawyers and redistricting experts sparring over whether the edge that the maps give Republicans is so extreme as to be unconstitutional. Over the next few days the Republican state legislators who drew the maps will defend their work against liberal challengers who are seeking to have the maps overturned as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. The challengers’ arguments largely echo those they made, successfully, in a 2019 lawsuit that resulted in the state’s maps being redrawn for the 2020 elections. But then the 2020 Census results came out, so the state had to draw new maps again in 2021. Those are what are being challenged now. Unless they’re overturned in court, they’ll be used in every election from 2022 through 2030.
The testimony Monday largely focused on the case being made by the challengers. Republicans will mount their defense later in the week, with closing arguments scheduled for Thursday. The trial is being held in a relatively small courtroom at Campbell University’s law school in downtown Raleigh, so seating is limited, but members of the public who wish to follow along can livestream the trial on WRAL’s website.
WHY IT MATTERS
Both major political parties are heavily interested in this case. Not only could it determine the balance of power in the state legislature, it could also be the difference in which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2022 elections, since Democrats currently have only a slim majority there. Under the maps GOP lawmakers drew last fall, their party would almost certainly be guaranteed a majority in the state legislature for years to come and would have a decent shot at getting back a veto-proof supermajority. At the congressional level, The News & Observer has reported that if the statewide vote were to be split roughly equally, Republicans would be expected to win 10 or 11 of the state’s 14 seats in the U.S. House. Because of the high stakes, the N.C. Supreme Court recently ordered the 2022 primary election to be delayed by two months, from March to May. That way, if the maps are overturned, there is a greater chance of them being redrawn in time for this year’s elections instead of any fix having to wait until 2024.
The three superior court judges picked from around the state to hear the trial this week are two Republicans, Nathaniel Poovey and Graham Shirley, and a Democrat, Dawn Layton. If the case makes it to the state Supreme Court, however, the political tables could be flipped since Democrats currently have a 4-3 majority on that court.
REDISTRICTING LAWSUIT DETAILS
Legislative leaders have said they did not use any political data when they drew the maps last fall, in a process that was open to the public to watch in person or streaming online. And Republicans have previously defended the lopsided results as being a natural result of North Carolina’s political geography — in other words, the fact that Democratic voters tend to live in cities while Republicans tend to be more spread out across the rural areas of the state.
The first expert witness to testify Monday, however, said he used a computer algorithm to come up with 1,000 different ways of drawing North Carolina’s 14 congressional districts — and that he came to the conclusion that the GOP argument about geography doesn’t hold up. Jowei Chen, a political scientist from the University of Michigan, said only 3% of the maps his computer program drew had a 10-4 GOP split. The legislature’s map is also an outlier on other factors including how many times urban areas were split up between multiple districts, Chen said, focusing specifically on the Triad region around Greensboro. “The enacted plan is a partisan outlier and I found that the Republican bias in the enacted plan cannot be explained by North Carolina’s political geography,” he said.
Most of Chen’s maps resulted in a likely 9-5 GOP split, he acknowledged under cross-examination by legislative attorney Patrick Lewis — not far off from the 10-4 split the legislature’s maps would create. But Chen said a key difference is that his maps tended to have numerous competitive districts, while the legislature’s maps do not.
A report from Chen that challengers submitted to the court shows that the current congressional map drawn by GOP lawmakers has 10 seats in which Republicans would be expected to win by 5 percentage points or more. Most of his 1,000 maps, on the other hand, only had four or five such solidly Republican districts — and none had even nine, let alone 10. Chen said Republicans in the legislature were able to give their party so many more-or-less guaranteed seats by creating several heavily Democratic districts. Packing many liberal voters into a small number of districts, he said, has the ripple effect of turning neighboring districts from competitive to solidly Republican. For instance, Chen said, none of his 1,000 maps had a single district that’s as heavily liberal as the Charlotte district that GOP lawmakers drew for Democratic Rep. Alma Adams.
Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political science professor, also testified as an expert witness for the challengers. He said the new maps were drawn because of the 2020 Census results, in which North Carolina gained so much new population that it gained an extra congressional seat.
Even though the “vast, vast, vast majority” of that growth occurred in heavily Democratic counties, Cooper said, the new maps would give Democrats less political representation than they currently have. The GOP’s edge in the state congressional delegation would be expected to grow from 8-5 to 10-4. “We got an extra congressional seat, yet the Democrats will lose voting power in Congress,” he said.
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