Not soup yet? Why NC’s gerrymandered congressional map is back in federal court

By Steve Ford - N.C. Council of Churches

After a panel of federal judges threw out North Carolina’s congressional district map because it trampled the rights of African-American voters, the General Assembly followed orders and redrew the map. The 13 districts were dramatically realigned, with major consequences both for candidates and voters. Primary elections for the 13 seats that had been slated for March 15 were pushed back to June 7.

End of story? Not quite.

The plaintiffs who successfully challenged the original map as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander see just as many problems with the new one. They’ve gone back to court, asking the three judges not to let the legislature get away with a scheme intended to maintain an outsized Republican edge in the congressional delegation while still treating black voters unfairly.

A hearing is set for March 11, and whatever the outcome, it’s a safe bet that the judges’ ruling will be sent on up the judicial ladder. Once again, it seems likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will have to settle a North Carolina redistricting squabble – not exactly a sign that our civic engine is running smoothly. (Cough…lurch…backfire…)

The manner in which election districts are drawn – in the case of congressional and legislative districts, a prerogative of the General Assembly – can be crucial in determining which candidates have the inside track. It can be just as crucial in determining whether all voters have an equal voice in an election’s outcome, as the Constitution entitles them to have. And the policy fallout from these mapping decisions can be enormous.

As required, the legislature redrew North Carolina’s district maps after the 2010 census, to adjust for population growth and shifts. Because Republicans had taken control of both the state Senate and House, they were primed to draw the maps so as to give their party the upper hand. That’s what they did – in particular, by overloading two congressional districts with Democratic-leaning African-Americans.

The upshot was that while those districts could be counted upon to elect Democrats, the adjacent ones became Republican territory. All in all, the effect was to dial back whatever influence black citizens could hope to muster.

The federal panel concluded that in fact, race had been the “predominate” criterion for configuring the state’s 1st and 12th congressional districts – the 1st sprawling across several northeastern counties and the 12th stretching along the I-85 corridor between Greensboro and Charlotte. And the judges ruled as well that legislators failed to meet the standard that would have allowed them to rely on race so heavily.

Race off the table – or not

So, how did those legislators respond to the judges’ this-time-get-it-right directive?

First, as they assert, they redrew the districts without paying attention to racial patterns at all.

Second, as they freely admitted, they made sure that among the 13 districts, 10 were likely to be carried by Republicans. That’s the same split as the current map has yielded – despite the fact that North Carolina has fewer Republican voters than Democratic.

Unaffiliated voters of course are part of the mix as well, which clouds the picture somewhat. But to the plaintiffs who fought the original map as a racial gerrymander, the follow-up map represented a leap, as they put it, from the frying pan into the fire.

Instead of drawing two districts (the 1st and 12th) so as to sweep in majorities of black residents, the new map lowers black percentages in those districts to 43.8 percent and 35.3 percent, respectively.

The 1st District is the province of veteran Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield of Wilson, one of the two African-Americans in the congressional delegation. His re-election chances could be rated as good.

But the 12th District, whose incumbent is Rep. Alma Adams of Greensboro, the delegation’s other black member, is a different story. The notoriously snake-shaped district was not only reconfigured, but it also was picked up and moved so that it lies wholly within Mecklenburg County.

Adams could run there, since members of Congress don’t have to live in the district they represent. But she would have a steep hill to climb. Black Democrats in the legislature, where Adams served for 20 years until her election to the U.S. House in 2014, are particularly chafed by how roughly the new map treats her.

Marooned and sunk?

The redistricting challengers echo that grievance. “Representative Adams is now marooned ninety miles from CD 12, her original district, in CD 13, in which she has no hope of being elected,” they say. “Thus the impact of undoing the racial gerrymander that for so long placed minority voters at a disadvantage is a New Plan that uniquely impacts, if not specifically targets, one of only two minority incumbents.”

As it happens, Republican Rep. George Holding also would see his district, the 13th, pulled out from under him as he landed in the strongly Democratic 4th District. But the Raleigh resident figures he’ll have a decent chance to oust Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers of Dunn in the redrawn 2nd District, which covers much of the territory that now sends Holding to Washington. Meanwhile, the new 13th also is geared to elect a Republican, in keeping with the party’s resolve to maintain its 10-3 delegation margin.

The new map’s distribution of black voters is key to that partisan strategy, the redistricting plaintiffs assert. The plan “manages to unpack heavily African-American districts by dispersing African-American voters across nearly every other district,” they say, “ensuring that minority voters have no more influence than under the original racial gerrymander.”

Dispersal of that nature is a tried-and-true means of diluting the influence of voters whom map-drawers want to marginalize – a painful lesson for many African-Americans through the years.

The plaintiffs also say the new map runs afoul of the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee in marginalizing not only black voters but Democrats as well. The courts have held that district boundaries can be drawn with an eye toward partisan advantage. But, the critics contend, when legislators set a goal of preserving the 10-3 delegation split in a so-called purple state, they went too far.

Could this case become one in which the Supreme Court is moved to address whether there should be limits on gerrymandering spurred by overzealous partisanship? Given North Carolina’s tangled history of redistricting litigation, much of which has had to be settled by the justices in Washington, it’s not hard to imagine that question eventually being taken up.

If it is, let’s hope that fairness to all voters becomes the guiding principle. The upshot otherwise will be the perpetuation of a system in which some voters can no more influence the choice of their elected representatives than they can jump out the window and fly. And we know who those voters tend to be – minorities, the poor and others whom the powerful would

just as soon ignore.

Steve Ford, former editorial page editor at Raleigh’s News & Observer, is now a Volunteer Program Associate at the North Carolina Council of Churches.

By Steve Ford

N.C. Council of Churches

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