Partisan gerrymandering goes on trial in Greensboro

On Monday, a potentially landmark trial against partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina began at a federal courthouse in Greensboro.

The lawsuit, Common Cause v. Rucho, was filed by Common Cause in August of 2016 after legislative leaders openly declared that they had replaced racially gerrymandered congressional districts with districts gerrymandered along partisan lines.

“This case could finally end gerrymandering in North Carolina and may have reverberations across the country,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause NC.

Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging partisan gerrymandering is Morton Lurie, a Republican voter from Raleigh.

“Competitive districts are needed to make congressmen of all parties sensitive to the will and interests of the voters in their district,” Lurie said. “The current districts prevent many North Carolinians from being represented by someone truly sensitive to their needs and interests.”

Early last year, a federal court ruled that the Republican-controlled NC legislature had unconstitutionally gerrymandered two of the state’s 13 congressional districts along racial lines and ordered them to be redrawn.

Republican legislative leaders responded by claiming they would craft a new congressional map by ignoring race entirely, and instead draw a blatant partisan gerrymander, as Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) stated publicly during a redistricting committee meeting in February of 2016.

“We want to make clear that we … are going to use political data in drawing this map,” Lewis said at that time. “It is to gain partisan advantage on the map. I want that criteria to be clearly stated and understood.”

While a series of court rulings have made it clear that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court has not yet made a decisive ruling against partisan gerrymandering.

That could change with Common Cause v. Rucho, now being heard in the federal Middle District of North Carolina, and with Gill v. Whitford, which was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court two weeks ago.

“Our lawsuit is a crucial step toward protecting the constitutional right of citizens to have a voice in choosing their representatives,” Phillips said.

Among the speakers at Monday’s press conference was Braxton Brewington, a student at NC A&T State University in Greensboro, the largest historically black university in the nation. The legislature’s gerrymandering scheme splits that campus into two different congressional districts, fracturing the voting power of students.

“For each and every student that lives on campus, their vote has essentially been diluted,” Brewington said. “But we know that’s not what democracy is, a rigged system where politicians choose their voters. Voters should choose their representatives.”

In addition to fighting gerrymandering in the courts, Common Cause has been a longtime advocate for legislation that would establish nonpartisan redistricting in North Carolina.

House Bill 200 would take redistricting power out of the hands of legislators and give it to an independent body, which in turn would draw districts free from partisan politics.  While the measure has broad support in the NC House with 39 bipartisan co-sponsors, it has not yet been given a hearing or a vote in that chamber.

Under North Carolina’s longstanding system, whichever party controls the legislature also controls redistricting. For decades, the result has been gerrymandered voting maps that heavily favor one party or the other and reduce competition on Election Day.

An overwhelming majority of North Carolina voters support independent redistricting, as shown by a Public Policy Polling survey in April. According to the poll’s results, 80 percent of voters say it’s not fair for politicians to draw their own districts. That includes 85 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of independent voters.

Over 260 civic leaders from 130 towns and cities across North Carolina have signed a petition calling on the legislature to pass independent redistricting reform. And more than 100 North Carolina business owners have launched a coalition calling for an end to gerrymandering.