NC ‘poster child’ for par­ti­san maps

As jus­tices ponder lines in other states, Tar Heels’ di­vi­sions are clear-cut

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Richard Wolf

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

SHAWN THEW/EPA-EFE

Demon­stra­tors protest out­side the U.S. Supreme Court in March as the jus­tices heard the sec­ond of two challenges to par­ti­san ger­ry­man­der­ing.

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