On Tuesday, a federal district court threw out a high-handed gerrymander in North Carolina’s Wake County that had been pushed through by Republican state legislators and ordered officials to instead hold elections using districts for the county commission and school board that had been drawn at the local level. A federal appeals court had previously ruled that the maps violated the one-person, one-vote principle because Republicans illegally overpopulated a few Democratic districts and underpopulated the ones they intended for Republicans to win, so this latest decision cements a big victory for both democracy and Democrats.
Republicans took control of the North Carolina state legislature in 2010, giving them total authority over redistricting because state law denies the governor a veto over such matters. This majority used its power to draw some of America's most extreme gerrymanders for Congress and state legislature, but it didn’t stop there. State Republicans even redrew the maps of county and city governments like Wake County, home to the swiftly growing state capital of Raleigh and over one million people, and Guilford County, where Greensboro is located. Combined, these two counties contain roughly one in seven North Carolinians.
Wake County previously elected all its county commissioners at-large, a system that allowed Democrats to win a majority following strong performances in 2012 and 2014. State legislative Republicans swiftly responded by overriding the county-drawn map and passing a mid-decade gerrymander that eliminated the at-large seats and created nine individual districts, as shown here. And thanks to a shrewd cartographer’s pen, Barack Obama lost five of these nine GOP-drawn districts even though he carried the county by double digits. This map could have allowed Republicans to win a majority by 2018 despite losing the countywide popular vote.
As for the school board, Republicans had previously won a majority in 2009 before Democrats regained it in 2011. But during that two-year period, tea partiers set about enacting a program that would have essentially resegregated the county’s schools. Republican state legislators reacted to Democrats retaking a majority under the map the county drew by gerrymandering the board themselves in 2013. Despite the state GOP’s efforts to interfere in local affairs, Democrats managed to hold on, in part thanks to the fact that school board positions are elected on a nonpartisan basis.
Unfortunately, this litigation is still ongoing and there’s a chance Republicans will eventually be able to implement an “improved” gerrymander that doesn’t violate one person, one vote precepts. However, for 2016 at least, they won’t be able to use their gerrymanders to illegitimately thwart the intent of the voters in one of North Carolina’s most populous counties.
UPDATE: More good news: on Thursday a separate federal court ruling struck down North Carolina’s state legislative districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. See our full coverage here.