A federal district court has ordered that North Carolina’s legislature must redraw its state legislative districts by March 15, 2017, following a ruling earlier in 2016 that struck down 28 of 170 districts as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. The court held in August that Republicans had impermissibly used race to pack African-American voters into a few seats like the state Senate’s 21st District (shown above) in order to effectively dilute their strength in neighboring districts like the 19th. New district maps will be used in a November 2017 special election if this court ruling survives a likely Supreme Court review.
North Carolina is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, as the above district map illustrates. Republicans so aggressively manipulated the process that they won veto-proof legislative majorities in 2012 even when Democratic candidates won more votes statewide. They maintained those veto-proof majorities in 2016 even as Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper appears to have ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory from office. Federal courts previously struck down the state’s gerrymanders for Congress and even local governments in addition to the legislature in 2016.
Republicans will unfortunately be able to legislatively draw new replacement gerrymanders. However, they likely won’t be able to use racial gerrymandering to win quite as many seats as before, and their state House majority of 74-46 is only two seats above the three-fifths minimum of 72 needed to override vetoes. These special elections will be key because they could lead to Democrats gaining enough seats to sustain a Gov. Cooper’s vetoes, finally giving the party a check against North Carolina Republicans’ reactionary agenda.
Republican legislators will certainly appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court. However, given Justice Anthony Kennedy’s recent rulings against just this very sort of naked racial gerrymandering, there is a good chance he will side with the four liberals in favor of the plaintiffs and require that these maps be redrawn.