NC ‘poster child’ for partisan maps
As justices ponder lines in other states, Tar Heels’ divisions are clear-cut
GREENSBORO, N.C. – It’s only a few yards from political science professor
Derick Smith’s office at North Carolina A&T State University to the campus library, but to get there he has to switch congressional districts.
As part of its effort to help Republicans win 10 of the state’s 13 seats in the House of Representatives in 2016, the state legislature split the largest of the nation’s historically black colleges down the middle, ensuring that its students could not influence the outcome for either seat. An invisible line runs down Laurel Street, separating the Aggie Village dormitories from the bookstore, ticket office and mail center.
“It’s literally like two different campuses around election time,” says student body president Delaney Vandergrift.
The Supreme Court has spent a nearrecord 254 days this term trying to hammer out its decision on partisan gerrymandering – the designing of election districts for political advantage. Rulings on one-sided maps from Wisconsin and Maryland are due within weeks.
But if the justices don’t reach a final conclusion on whether blatant partisanship is permissible or unconstitutional, North Carolina’s congressional map looms as the next test. Here, the facts aren’t even in dispute: State lawmakers in the relatively “purple” state, which swings between Democrats and Republicans in statewide elections, declared their intentions on camera.
The challenge by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters to the state-drawn map – which gives Republicans 10 of 13 seats because, state Rep. David Lewis said, he couldn’t squeeze out an 11th – may offer the cleanest test for the court’s consideration.
“North Carolina is kind of a poster child for why there needs to be some rule,” says Allison Riggs, senior staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
The state’s history of racial and partisan gerrymandering dates back a quarter century, and both parties have chalk on their hands.
For years, the 12th Congressional District snaked so narrowly along Interstate 85, picking up black voters who invariably voted Democratic, that it became the national model for grotesque gerrymandering. When it ultimately was struck down on racial grounds, Republicans happily substituted a standard the Supreme Court has yet to admonish: politics.
“We want to make clear that to the extent we are going to use political data in drawing this map, it is to gain partisan advantage,” Lewis said at the time. “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
The result looked a lot better, but it had the same devastating effect on Democrats. They were “packed” into Charlotte, blocking the chance for two Democratic seats there, and “cracked” in Greensboro and Asheville to assure Republican victories.
Nowhere was the deed so dastardly, challengers say, than at North Carolina A&T. Here, about 10,000 students were neatly divided between the 6th and 13th congressional districts, ensuring that most would vote for losing candidates.
At stake in many states, including North Carolina through a separate court challenge, are state legislative districts as well as those for Congress. The statehouse challenges are important because the lawmakers elected in 2020 will draw lines for the next decade.
‘Blue dot in sea of red’
North Carolina didn’t hide what it was doing in 2016, and to the state’s Democrats and African Americans, it was no laughing matter. One expert told a trial court last year that the workmanship exhibited the most partisan bias of any congressional map in the country.
Nevertheless, Republican lawmakers defend their plan’s “clean, compact and competitive maps,” in the words of Mark Coggins, policy adviser to Lewis, who chaired the redistricting effort.
“We are confident that the most recent maps, which split fewer precincts and counties than any in recent North Carolina history, will be upheld in one way or another by the courts,” he says.
That’s not how folks see it in predominantly liberal Greensboro, pop. 287,000 – “a blue dot in a sea of red,” says Democratic consultant Tim Moreland.
“We’ve been dealing with the gerrymander since the ’90s,” Smith says. “North Carolina’s probably the most gerrymandered state at all levels. The one thing they all seem to have in common is that race is being used as a proxy for partisan advantage.”
“North Carolina’s probably the most gerrymandered state at all levels.”
Derick Smith North Carolina A&T State University professor
Demonstrators protest outside the U.S. Supreme Court in March as the justices heard the second of two challenges to partisan gerrymandering.