Legislative v. judicial: A lengthy timeline of North Carolina gerrymandering

Common Cause is taking the North Carolina legislature to court over partisan gerrymandering. Here is how we got here.

Unsurprisingly, when you swindle the people out of their power to choose who represents them, the voters never like that. However, the courts’ position has fluctuated.

‘Tis the case with North Carolina’s extended chronicle of gerrymandering, in essence a series of pushes and pulls against democracy and with varying levels of support from the judicial branch. Since 2011, North Carolina’s Republican-led General Assembly has tested the limits of the Constitution, deciding which voters to blacklist from a meaningful say in elections.

This ping-pong battle between the courts and the General Assembly has left North Carolina’s voters sidelined as spectators. As oral arguments in the US Supreme Court case, Common Cause v. Rucho, rapidly approaches, and since the saga is so complex and elongated, it is both timely and essential to take a look back at the timeline and recent history of  gerrymandering in North Carolina since 2010. Here is your itinerary of repression:

March 31, 2003: Common Cause joins other organizations to advocate for legislation that would create an independent commission to conduct redistricting in North Carolina. This comes at a time when Democrats control the state legislature and thus are committing the gerrymandering. The legislation, should it have passed, would have also created a constitutional amendment to assure longevity. The bill never passed.

Skip forward seven years.

November 2, 2010: Democrats lost the State House and State Senate, largely due to Stephen Jankowski and Karl Rove’s Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP), which funneled relatively small amounts of money into state legislative elections in order to gain control of the redistricting process. This process of redistricting, or drawing legislative maps, comes around after each census. In the House, Republicans won 16 seats and thus turned it red. In the Senate, they won 11 seats, also flipping control. For the first time in more than a century, the GOP now had full control of the NC General Assembly.

June 7, 2011: The Republican lawmakers, whose job it is to create congressional maps, unveil their new redistricting plan, which is immediately berated for weakening the African-American vote. Despite being a swing state, 10 of 13 districts are determined to strongly favor Republican candidates.

November 3, 2011: Democratic legislators, past and former, criticize the new maps for its apparent racial discrimination. Determined, they file a lawsuit, claiming that “the General Assembly has isolated the state’s black citizens in a small number of districts.” The lawsuit has 44 plaintiffs.

July 8, 2013: A three-judge panel of North Carolina’s Supreme Court rejects the claim of racial discrimination and upholds the ostensibly racially-biased maps despite clear legal precedent at both the federal and state level banning racial gerrymandering.

April 20, 2015: The U.S. Supreme Court instructs the three-judge panel to reassess their decision, given that the Supreme Court had just struck down racially-gerrymandered maps in their Alabama case, Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama (2017).

December 18, 2015: Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisive opinion, the NC Supreme Court did little to defend the voters of color in the state, who were packed like sardines into very few districts. In fact, in a 4-3 decision, the Court upheld the districts, arguing race was not the primary factor of the 2011 districts. The decision was immediately appealed.

February 5, 2016: A three-judge panel for the U.S. District Court identifies racial discrimination at the hands of the NC General Assembly. They order the maps be redrawn efficiently and without regards to race.

February 18, 2016: The NC legislature holds a special legislative session to redraw maps. Though legislators guarantee new maps won’t be based on race, many make sure to announce they will work to keep the same partisan split, 10-3. These maps, too, are immediately criticized for their evident partisan gerrymandering and weakening of the Democratic vote.

August 5, 2016: Common Cause files a lawsuit, Common Cause v. Rucho, condemning the unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering in the Middle District Court of North Carolina. The League of Women Voters files a similar lawsuit soon thereafter, and the suits are consolidated into one, Common Cause v. Rucho.

January 9, 2018: A federal district court rules in favor of Common Cause, finding an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. For most voters, this is understandable, given that a state representative famously boasted that, “we drew the maps to give a partisan advantage to ten Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with eleven Republicans and two Democrats.” The Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

June 25, 2018: The U.S. Supreme Court, in keeping with its controversial decision in the Wisconsin gerrymandering case Gill v. Whitford, redirects the case back to the Middle District Court of North Carolina, asking the ambiguous question of whether the “voters suffered harm.”

August 27, 2018: Despite the Supreme Court’s redirection, the same district court affirmed 2-1 that the districts were unconstitutional, raising the important question of whether new maps would have to be drawn, allowing a fair vote in North Carolina’s crucial 2018 midterm elections.

November 13, 2018: Common Cause, along with individual voters and the North Carolina Democratic Party, file a new lawsuit, Common Cause v. Lewis, in state court challenging the partisan gerrymandering of the the state legislative districts. The trial will begin July 15, 2019.

January 4, 2019: Instead of permitting the lower court’s decision to call for new maps, the Supreme Court announced it would hear the case challenging the constitutionality of North Carolina’s congressional districts, Common Cause v. Rucho (2019), on March 26. To attend Common Cause’s events for the crucial day, visit the Facebook link attached here.

If, after reading this timeline, you are still befuddled, that is understandable. Not only lengthy, North Carolina’s on-again, off-again relationship with the state and national judicial branches with regards to its legislature’s power grabs can be described as nothing less than baffling. Defrauding voters appears to be the legislature’s number one priority, mysteriously above constitutionally-allotted duties of public education, protection, transportation, and others that voters actually rely on the government to help them.

Common Cause v. Rucho represents the greatest opportunity we have to return power to voters by using the power of the judicial branch. Please join us at our festivities on March 26th and urge the Supreme Court to do the right thing and end partisan gerrymandering.