North Carolina's current congressional districts (click to enlarge)
On Monday, the Supreme Court vacated a ruling
from North Carolina's highest court that had upheld Republican-drawn maps of the state's congressional and legislative districts. While we don't yet know what the final outcome will be, the court's decision could have a real impact on one of the most aggressively partisan gerrymanders in the nation.
Democrats had argued that the new lines were unconstitutional because they'd improperly taken voters' race into account; while this line of attack did not receive a receptive audience in state court, the SCOTUS decreed that in light of a recent decision of theirs in a similar case out of Alabama, the North Carolina Supreme Court had to reconsider its decision.
So what did that Alabama decision say? In that case, plaintiffs claimed that Republicans—who had their hands on the cartographer's pencil there as well—had packed black voters into too few districts, "bleaching" surrounding districts and thus diminishing Democratic voting strength in those areas (because African-Americans almost always vote heavily for Democrats). There as here, a lower court sided with the defendants, but the Supreme Court disagreed and sent that case back down for a re-hearing last month. We're still awaiting the results, and may yet for a while.
Opponents of North Carolina's maps raised very similar arguments—take a look at the skinny, snake-like 12th District, which crams in a black majority running along a hundred-mile stretch of I-85 from Greensboro to Charlotte. They now find themselves in the same place as their peers in Alabama: waiting to see how a lower court decides the second time around. However, as legal scholar Rick Hasen explained when the Alabama decision was handed down, the Supreme Court's ruling may only offer plaintiffs a "small" and "temporary" victory.
That's because Republicans are free to draft new maps that maximize the number of seats they can expect to win, so long as they don't rely on race as a proxy for voting behavior (or can at least do a better job of hiding their intentions). In other words, they can be as partisan as they want to be—they just need to be crafty about it.
But that's a lot easier in dark red Alabama than in swingy North Carolina. Indeed, the Tarheel State is currently home to some of the most extreme gerrymanders in the entire nation. Even though Barack Obama carried the state by a point in 2008 and lost it by only two points four years later, just three of the state's 13 members of the House—23 percent—are Democrats, and only 36 percent of legislators are Democrats as well. For a 50-50 state, that's breathtaking.
So if North Carolina Republicans are forced to go back to the literal drawing board (well, laptop running fancy software), they'll have less room to maneuver than their counterparts in Alabama. They're a wily bunch, though, so the upside for Democrats may not be dramatic. (And sometimes these wins turn out to be pyrrhic, as we saw in a different case last year in Florida.) But it's possible we'll see some GOP seats grow more competitive, and at the very least, the Supreme Court is intent on forbidding Republicans from impermissibly turning voters' race into a partisan cudgel.