North Carolina’s state legislative map, heavily and carefully gerrymandered to protect the Republican majority, was rejected yesterday by a three-judge panel. It’s a big win for advocates of voting rights, which will likely have an effect that extends beyond the Tar Heel State.
Lawmakers’ partisan intent in drawing the maps, the “surgical precision” with which they were executed, and the distinct advantage the maps gave to Republicans violated the state’s constitutional protections of free elections, free speech and assembly, and equal protection under the law, the judges wrote in a 357-page ruling that reads as a stinging condemnation of partisan gerrymandering.
“The 2017 Enacted Maps, as drawn, do not permit voters to freely choose their representative, but rather representatives are choosing voters based upon sophisticated partisan sorting,” the judges wrote. “It is not the free will of the People that is ascertained through extreme partisan gerrymandering. Rather, it is the carefully crafted will of the map drawer that predominates.”
The full ruling is online here (pdf. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern described it as “the most comprehensive judicial opinion about partisan gerrymandering ever written.”
For reasons I don’t fully understand, state GOP leaders indicated yesterday that they don’t intend to appeal the ruling, though it’s difficult to imagine North Carolina Republicans actually giving up and accepting a fair district map. Of course, even if it did appeal, the party faces long odds: the state Supreme Court has a progressive majority, and since the only issue here is North Carolina law, it’s unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would intervene.
All of which suggests voters will next year elect state representatives in North Carolina using a fair map featuring fair district boundaries, increasing the odds of Democratic gains. And why does that matter? Because a year later, state lawmakers in North Carolina will be responsible for drawing the district lines for legislative races based on 2020 census data.
Looking ahead, yesterday’s ruling ordered legislators to begin work on a fair map, based on non-partisan criteria, and drawn in a transparent way.
The process is supposed to last no more than two weeks. Voting-rights advocates are already preparing to take the principles surrounding this case to other states where gerrymandering is undermining democracy.