On June 27, the political mapmakers who gave the GOP a 10-3 advantage in North Carolina’s congressional delegation will stand trial in federal court in Greensboro in a case that could determine whether the Republican juggernaut will continue to rule this state into the next decade.
Partisan gerrymandering, a practice whereby the party with a majority rigs the process to maintain its advantage indefinitely, has been in use since the early days of the republic. But like texting while driving, the practice has become increasingly stigmatized.
The first fissures appeared last year, just after the November election, when a panel of federal judges ruled that Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters by drawing state legislative district lines in such a way to minimize their political voice.
The US Supreme Court announced on Monday that it will take up the Wisconsin case, potentially delivering a ruling on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering sometime next year. The plaintiffs in the Wisconsin case sought to give the Supreme Court a tool to measure partisan gerrymandering, thereby setting a threshold for determining when partisan advantage goes so far as to violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution. Justice Anthony Kennedy, widely considered the swing vote on the high court, wrote in a concurring opinion for a 2004 case that he “would not foreclose all possibility of judicial relief if some limited and precise rationale were found to correct an established violation of the Constitution in some redistricting cases.”
The tool presented by the Wisconsin plaintiffs is called the “efficiency gap.” It measures the “wasted vote” — that is, all votes cast for a losing candidate and all votes in excess of 50 percent cast for a winning candidate. In North Carolina, for example, many Democratic voters are “packed” into three districts in percentages far beyond what is needed to win elections so that a large number of votes are wasted. The rest of the Democratic voters in the state are “cracked” between 10 Republican-leaning districts, so that all their losing votes are wasted. In comparison, Republican votes are efficiently distributed throughout the districts for maximal impact. The efficiency gap, then, is the distance between the two parties’ abilities to translate votes into electoral wins.
As the plaintiff’s in the trial brief for the case challenging North Carolina’s 2016 Congressional Plan wrote, mapmaker Thomas Hofeller split counties “surgically for the sake of partisan advantage,” including a split of “staunchly Democratic” Asheville between districts 10 and 11 and “the Democratic stronghold of Greensboro” between districts 6 and 13, while almost every Democratic precinct in Mecklenburg County was “crammed” into District 12,” and practically every Democratic precinct in Wake County was packed into District 4.
[pullquote]The North Carolina congressional district map has “the largest partisan asymmetry” in the country, an elections expert says.[/pullquote]“This was a virtuoso demonstration of the gerrymanderer’s classic tools of cracking and packing,” the trial brief contends.
While the Wisconsin case awaits the US Supreme Court, Common Cause and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina will try to make the case to US District Judge William L. Osteen Jr. that the partisan gerrymander scheme in NC’s congressional map violates the First and Fourteenth amendments.
The plaintiffs will put Simon Jackman, a political scientist based in Sydney, Australia, on the stand as an expert witness to testify that the 2016 North Carolina congressional map drawn up by Hofeller on behalf of the GOP “had the largest efficiency gap in the 2016 election of any map in the country.”
Republicans had a good year in 2016, with 53.3 percent of 4.6 million votes cast for congressional candidates going to GOP contenders, but they got an extraordinary bang for their buck, carrying 10 out of 13 contests.
It was that way by design. When the Joint Select Committee on Redistricting met in Raleigh in February 2016, co-chair Rep. David Lewis explained, “To the extent possible, the map drawers [would be instructed to] create a map which is perhaps likely to elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats.”
The plaintiffs contend in their trial brief: “This extraordinary asymmetry is virtually certain to endure for the rest of the decade. Only if the statewide vote swings by at least nine points in a Democratic direction — producing the best Democratic showing in more than 30 years — will the plan’s Republican bias dissipate.”
The congressional map is a blight on democracy.
Ironically, the 2016 plan was drawn because the federal courts struck down the former plan as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. One of the judges responsible for that ruling, Max Cogburn, also took aim at partisan gerrymandering in a concurring opinion.
“Elections should be decided through a contest of ideas, not skillful mapmaking,” Cogburn wrote. District maps drawn to achieve a predetermined political outcome rather than to give voice voters, he wrote, “are in disharmony with fundamental values upon which this country was founded” and an “affront to democracy.”