We have redistricting litigation developments in North Carolina, Virginia, and Illinois in addition to a big prison gerrymandering decision out of Rhode Island. A significant win in California could bring reform to counties and cities across the state and a new campaign in Pennsylvania seeks to get candidates’ views about gerrymandering on the record. Here’s what’s happening around the country.
North Carolina: Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool…
When leaders in the North Carolina General Assembly bragged about making partisan advantage an explicit requirement when they drew congressional districts, they proved they could learn a lot from apocryphal Mark Twain quotes. A federal court ordered legislators to redraw the map after their previous effort was ruled to be an illegal racial gerrymander. Thanks to their candor and the resulting districts, three lawsuits are now challenging the map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The Campaign Legal Center and Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed the most recent of these challenges on behalf of the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and several voters. This case will apply the efficiency gap, a measure of partisan gerrymandering that examines how successful one party is at winning seats by maximizing the other party’s “wasted” votes. Wasted votes are those that are cast for losing candidates or those cast for winning candidates above what is needed for victory.
Partisan gerrymandering claims concerning these districts may also be argued in the U.S. Supreme Court in Harris v. McCrory, the racial gerrymandering case that triggered the redraw, and will be addressed in a federal trial court in Common Cause v. Rucho.
Nothing to See Here, Folks: Virginia Redistricting Communications and the Veil of Secrecy
Virginia state senators won their fight to close the blinds and prevent the public from seeing their communications with consultants who redrew General Assembly districts after the 2010 census. Previously, a Virginia circuit court placed six current and former legislators in contempt of court after they refused to turn over their communications as part of OneVirginia2021’s state constitutional challenge of the districts. Legislators sought the contempt ruling to send the question quickly to the state’s high court and determine the extent to which they could keep redistricting information from public scrutiny. The Supreme Court of Virginia reversed the circuit court’s contempt order while stating that legislative privilege is potentially broader than the circuit court ruled it to be and could allow legislators to shield this information from the public.
Regardless, the primary issue in the underlying case involves the Virginia Constitution’s compactness requirements, so legislators’ intent is less relevant than it might be in other cases. In addition, the House of Delegates’ communications and other evidence demonstrate legislators’ disinterest in state constitutional requirements. The trial is scheduled to take place in March.
All Locked Up: Federal Appeals Court Upholds Prison Gerrymandering in Cranston, Rhode Island
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that the Constitution allows cities to count prisoners as residents of the community in which the prison is located for redistricting purposes. This reverses a lower court decision. In the city of Cranston, Rhode Island, counting prison inmates artificially ballooned the population of the ward (the equivalent of a city council district) in which the prison is located. As the district court observed, prisoners have almost no interaction with Cranston or its city government.
In its reversal, the First Circuit cited Evenwel v. Abbott. Hope is not entirely lost: A federal district court in a different circuit ruled that prison gerrymandering is unconstitutional earlier this year. The defendant in that case – Jefferson County, Florida – did not appeal the decision.
All Politics Are Local: California Expands Independent Citizen Redistricting to Counties and Cities
Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 1108, a law that allows all counties and cities in California to create independent citizen redistricting commissions. California law previously allowed counties and general law cities to create only advisory commissions while leaving the power to approve districts in the hands of county and city elected officials. California Common Cause sponsored SB 1108.
Setting the Record Straight: Pennsylvania Redistricting Reform Coalition Sends Candidate Pledge
Fair Districts PA sent a request to every candidate running for the General Assembly asking them to pledge their support for reforming redistricting in the Keystone State. The pledge states:
"I pledge to support legislation to remove control of the redistricting process from all individuals who have direct conflicts of interest in the outcome (including, but not limited to, legislators, legislative staff, and political party officials and staff), and to establish an independent citizens' redistricting commission with authority over both legislative and congressional redistricting. I ask my constituents to hold me accountable to this pledge."
The coalition will post responses later on its website.
All Is Fair in Love and Redistricting: Illinois Supreme Court Kills Latest Reform Effort
The 2016 effort to reform Illinois’s broken redistricting system by ballot initiative hit a final wall courtesy of the state’s high court. The Illinois Supreme Court declined to rehear a case resulting in a 4-3 decision to strike the Independent Map Amendment from the November ballot. The 563,000 citizens who signed petitions and the rest of the state’s voters will be denied the opportunity to vote on a measure that would have created an independent redistricting commission to draw General Assembly districts.