New year begins with courts tackling old challenges of gerrymandering

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- A critical trial over North Carolina's voting maps begins on Monday that could make an impact on state and national politics for years to come.

As directed by the State Supreme Court, the expedited case before a panel of three Superior Court judges must determine whether the maps approved by the Republican-led General Assembly violate the state constitution because they unfairly dilute the vote of minority communities and tip the scales too much towards the ruling party.

"In North Carolina, 50% of voters vote Democrat and 50% vote Republican. You would believe in a 14-member congressional map, seven would be Democrat and seven would be Republican districts," said Representative GK Butterfield (Democrat-North Carolina) in a speech Sunday at a church in Rocky Mount. "It's the same medicine in a different bottle. If we don't rise to meet this challenge, we will feel the effects of discrimination for decades to come."

The North Carolina Supreme Court last month halted candidate filing in all races for the November 2022 election and pushed back the Primary Election from March 8 until May 17.

The order capped a furious 72 hours of legal wrangling over the fate of North Carolina's newly drawn legislative and congressional districts which were approved by the Republican-led General Assembly earlier this year.

The North Carolina Supreme Court has a 4-3 Democratic majority, though the Chief Justice is Paul Newby, a Republican. According to the order, the court is demanding the lawsuits are heard and considered by the trial court, and there must be a decision made by that court by January 11, followed by subsequent appeals.

"The main problem with the plaintiff's case is there's no real standard that determines definitely that what Republicans did was beyond what is permitted with redistricting," said Mitch Kokai, a senior political analyst at the conservative John Locke Foundation. "The process that we have is that the party that controls the General Assembly gets to draw the maps. Republicans control the General Assembly, they get to draw the maps and as long as they don't violate anything that's been set out either in state law or in previous court precedent, they should be allowed to do what they did."

Representative Destin Hall, a Caldwell County Republican and chairman of the House Rules Committee, lauded his GOP colleagues for approving the maps last year after several weeks of committee meetings that were broadcast live for the first time. The maps split the state into 50 State Senate districts, 120 House of Representatives, and 14 Congressional districts.

"This is the most transparent process in the history of this state," said Hall. "We voluntarily chose to be out in public and not use election data, even though by law we didn't have to do that. We chose to do that because that's the right thing to do. We did that. This body did that."

Though Democrats roundly voted against all the proposed maps, they reserved particular ire for the congressional map which several analysts predict will give the GOP a good chance of winning as many as 11 of 14 districts -- an astounding number considering how evenly divided the state is between registered Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Historically, Democrats and Republicans in North Carolina and across the country have been accused of drawing maps that presuppose outcomes to help their electoral chances.

Gerrymandering: What is it and how does it hurt voters?

Complaints about partisan gerrymandering almost always arise when one party controls the redistricting process and has the ability to maximize the seats it holds in a state legislature or its state's congressional delegation. Republicans, however, have been under intense scrutiny since becoming the state's majority party in 2010.

Several times in the last decade, courts have thrown out their maps after voting rights groups successfully argued they were unconstitutional. Before the courts intervened, Republicans held 10 of 13 congressional districts in a state that tends to have closely decided statewide elections. Likewise in the General Assembly, Republicans held comfortable majorities in the House and Senate and even held veto-proof super-majorities from 2012-2018. In the 2020 election, new maps kept those majorities in the House and Senate, but the congressional delegation went eight Republicans and five Democrats.

Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in 2019 on partisan redistricting, in a case involving North Carolina, where the 5-4 majority ruled federal judges should stay out of state redistricting issues.

"What the appellees and dissent seek is an unprecedented expansion of judicial power," wrote Justice John Roberts, and he added that voters and elected officials should be the arbiters of what they consider a political dispute.

LEGAL BATTLES LOOM

Despite the SCOTUS decision, legal fights remain in the North Carolina Supreme Court over whether partisan gerrymandering violates the state constitution.

A new lawsuit, moreover, was filed in Wake County last month by the left-leaning Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), which brought the case on behalf of the North Carolina NAACP, Common Cause, and individual voters.

"Lawmakers' supposed 'race-blind' redistricting process is rigged to reduce the strength of our votes, silence our voices, and negate decades of struggle and sacrifice for fairer maps," said Deborah Dicks Maxwell, President of the North Carolina NAACP. "You can't represent all of North Carolina if you claim not to see us."

The impact of the new maps has already been felt even before filing, as longtime Democratic Congressmen David Price and G.K. Butterfield announced their retirements. Butterfield, in particular, has long represented a majority-minority district that was redrawn by North Carolina Republicans in the latest redistricting, putting his seat in jeopardy.
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