On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld a district court ruling issued last year that struck down the congressional map that North Carolina Republicans drew in 2011 on the grounds that lawmakers had engaged in unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, handing voting rights advocates a major victory and dealing a huge blow to what was arguably the most effective congressional gerrymander of the modern era.
As shown on the map at the top of this post (see here for a larger image), Republican legislators used surgical precision to pack black voters into just two districts, the tentacular 1st and the snake-like 12th. The lower court found that these districts targeted voters on the basis of race in violation of the constitution, a move that effectively prevented black voters from electing their preferred candidates in neighboring seats.
Before Republican legislators put these new lines into place, the black population in both the 1st and the 12th constituted a plurality in each of those districts. During redistricting, the GOP increased those pluralities to majorities, claiming alternately that the Voting Rights Act forced them to do so (in the case of the 1st) or that they’d ignored race entirely and only considered partisan preferences in the 12th (something that is still permissible).
The Supreme Court, however, rejected both arguments. Black voters in both districts had for years been able to elect their candidates of choice (black Democrats), so increasing the black population in these two seats wasn’t necessary to ensure this state of affairs would continue. Indeed, in related cases, the Supreme Court has consistently rejected the notion that mapmakers are required to create districts with majority-black populations.
As a result, because Republicans so flagrantly disregarded traditional redistricting criteria with respect to the 1st, and because they could have achieved their partisan objectives by different means with the 12th, the court held that race unconstitutionally predominated in the redistricting process.
As noted above, this now-invalidated congressional map was one of, if not the very most, aggressive partisan gerrymanders in modern history. North Carolina is a relatively evenly divided swing state—Donald Trump won it by just 3 points last year—yet these lines offered Republicans 10 safe districts while creating three lopsidedly Democratic seats. Amazingly, all 10 Republican districts hit a perfect sweet spot with GOP support between 55 and 60 percent, a level that is high enough to be secure yet spreads around Republican voters just carefully enough to ensure the maximum number of GOP seats possible.
Unfortunately, Republican legislators swiftly replaced this map with an equally aggressive gerrymander that, they claimed, only took into account partisan considerations. As we have previously demonstrated, this map maintained the same split of 10 Republicans and three Democrats last year, and indeed, this was borne out in last year’s elections.
The map below shows the new gerrymander that North Carolina Republicans drew and implemented for the 2016 election cycle, which produced the same partisan split of 10 Republicans and three Democrats, with just two black (Democratic) representatives.
Republican state Rep. David Lewis even explicitly defended the redrawn map as a partisan gerrymander, stating unequivocally that it was intended to maintain the maximum possible edge for the GOP. This brazenly undemocratic admission was part of a legal tactic intended to insulate the new lines from renewed racial gerrymandering claims, but it opened up the map to lawsuits alleging unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. Again, partisan gerrymandering is currently allowed under U.S. law, but the Supreme Court will likely address this topic, too, in a series of related cases from other states.
Nevertheless, Monday’s ruling is a significant victory in a state that has been ground zero in the battle over voting rights. This decision will make it easier to challenge GOP racial gerrymanders elsewhere, which is significant because Republicans in nearly every Southern state could have drawn another congressional district that would elect black or Latino voters’ candidate of choice. What’s more, North Carolina also will likely have to contend with an upcoming Supreme Court case regarding illegal racial gerrymandering of its state legislature.
However, the North Carolina GOP’s new, allegedly “partisan-only” map is still in place at the moment, and there’s still a long way to go before it, too, might come undone at the hands of the courts.