North Carolina Republicans passed new, gerrymandered maps last month to ensure their party holds nearly all congressional seats and a veto-proof legislative majority.
At a statewide level, North Carolina is one of the most purple in the nation. The 2020 election was decided by less than 100,000 votes, with Trump winning by just one percentage point. Although Republicans control both the Assembly and Senate, the state has had a Democratic governor and a Democratic Attorney General since 2017. Gov. Roy Cooper (D), in fact, won his last election by over four percentage points.
Given that (active) state voters are split approximately 50/50 between the two major parties, it would follow that the state’s districts should provide the opportunity to elect 50% Republicans and 50% Democrats. Unfortunately, the GOP legislators in control of redistricting have shown time and time again that they would rather create a one-party state than have fair elections.
After the 2020 census, North Carolina Republicans drew congressional maps that would have resulted in 10 solidly Republican districts, three solidly Democratic districts, and one competitive district. Voting rights groups sued, and the state Supreme Court ruled 4-3 in their favor, finding that the maps violated citizens’ rights to free elections, freedom of speech, and equal protections of citizens.
“When, on the basis of partisanship, the general assembly enacts a districting plan that diminishes or dilutes a voter’s opportunity to aggregate with likeminded voters to elect a governing majority … the general assembly unconstitutionally infringes upon that voter’s fundamental right to vote,” read the order of the court’s majority, signed by associate Justice Robin Hudson.
The courts approved new maps in February 2022, including a congressional map drawn by bipartisan experts that resulted in seven Democratic and seven Republican districts.
Then came the 2022 election. The congressional map worked as intended, allowing voters to elect an equal number of Democrats and Republicans to the U.S. Congress. However, two Democratic Supreme Court justices lost re-election, flipping the court to a 5-2 Republican majority. Republican legislators petitioned the Supreme Court to redecide the earlier redistricting case as soon as the new justices were seated — and, as they hoped, the GOP majority ruled in their favor:
“There is no judicially manageable standard by which to adjudicate partisan gerrymandering claims. Courts are not intended to meddle in policy matters,” Chief Justice Paul Newby wrote in his 144-page opinion for the court’s majority…
“For a brief window in time, the power of deciding who is elected to office was given to the people, as required by the state constitution,” Justice Anita Earls wrote in her 72-page dissent, joined by Justice Michael Morgan. The two, who joined the court’s ruling last year striking down the map for being too partisan, are the last remaining Democratic jurists on the court.
“Today, the majority strips the people of this right; it tells North Carolinians that the state constitution and the courts cannot protect their basic human right to self-governance and self-determination,” Earls added, declaring that her Republican colleagues’ “efforts to downplay the practice do not erase its consequences and the public will not be gaslighted.”
Without the court-imposed restraints of fairness and democracy dictating what lines they could draw, North Carolina Republicans passed new maps last month that—if allowed to stand—will ensure their party never loses power.
The congressional map will give Republicans as many as 11 out of 14 seats while limiting Democrats to at most four of 14. In other words, Democrats could net the majority of the statewide vote but win less than 30% of congressional seats. Republicans, meanwhile, will always win at least 70% of the congressional seats no matter how poorly they perform statewide.
According to Duke math professor Jonathan Mattingly, the new maps “essentially negate the need to have elections for the U.S. House of Representatives.”
No matter how well Democrats perform, simulation after simulation shows almost no change in the makeup of the congressional delegation, reliably electing 10 or 11 Republicans compared to the current 7-7 party split.
Compare the court-approved 2022 congressional map (shaded by Biden’s 2020 margins) with the new congressional map. Democratic voters are packed into three urban districts (2nd, 4th, and 12th); all but one of the other districts that trended Democratic in the 2022 map are cracked—split up and combined with enough Republican-voting areas to dilute Democratic votes. As a result, the districts of Democratic Reps. Kathy Manning (6th), Jeff Jackson (14th), and Wiley Nickel (13th) no longer exist. Rep. Don Davis’s (D) 1st district is kept intact but drawn to include more white, Republican voters, making it harder to win.
In total, U.S. House Republicans are expected to gain at least 3 more congressional seats from North Carolina alone in the 2024 election.
The legislative maps adopted last month are no better, gerrymandering the GOP into a permanent supermajority in both the state Senate and Assembly. An analysis by Duke University found that in both chambers, “the proposed plans are even more extreme than the originally enacted 2021 maps” ruled unconstitutional by the then-Democratic state Supreme Court:
Both the Senate and House maps under-elect Democrats as one moves to more balanced elections with Republican statewide vote fractions near 50%. This has important implications for the preservation of the super-majority in the chamber. Under the newly proposed Senate maps, the Republicans may reasonably expect to obtain a super majority, even when the statewide Democratic vote share is over 50%…
…the newly proposed [Assembly] map preserves the super-majority. In the more democratic-leaning elections, the ensemble and the remedial map from 2022 would typically give control of the chamber to the Democrats but the newly proposed map leaves the Republicans with a sizable majority.
What can be done
There will almost certainly be legal challenges to the new maps. However, the state Supreme Court is unlikely to rule against Republican legislators because the new conservative majority greenlit their effort to replace 2022’s fair maps in the first place.
Plaintiffs could also challenge the maps in the federal courts, but are limited by the 2019 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. That means that parties are barred from arguing that Republicans drew the new districts to give themselves an unfair advantage over Democrats. Instead, plaintiffs must make the case that the legislature either used race as the predominant factor to determine district lines (violating the U.S. Constitution) or diluted the voting power of minority groups through “cracking” and “packing” districts (violating the Voting Rights Act).
Northeastern North Carolina, from Greenville to the Virginia border, has the highest percentage of Black residents in the state. It is currently represented by Rep. Don Davis, a Black Democrat, as part of the 1st District. The new map redraws the 1st to include more white, rural voters—making it more difficult for Black voters to elect a candidate of their choice.
The Piedmont Triad, made up of Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point, is another area that could be used to demonstrate racial gerrymandering. Whereas the 2022 map kept the region intact as the 6th District, the new map divides Black communities between three different districts that sprawl across the state (see map) to include more white, rural voters.
Republican legislators insist that they did not consider race when drawing the new maps. This itself is a problem because race must be analyzed to ensure that the votes of racial minorities aren’t illegally diluted. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in Allen v. Mulligan, a 2022 ruling that Alabama’s maps were racially gerrymandered, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act “demands consideration of race.”
However, proving if race was taken into account, and for what purposes, will be difficult given that Republicans inserted a provision into the state budget that removes redistricting drafts and communications from the public record—allowing legislators to shield their decision-making process from legal scrutiny.
A provision in the newly released state budget appears to remove all communications regarding redistricting from the public record.
Current state law says that once new maps are approved, most of the drafting and communication that led up to those maps becomes public records that anyone can request.
The budget, however, completely repeals that section of state law.