Balance of power in state, national politics at stake in NC redistricting trial

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The critical trial over North Carolina's voting maps began on Monday that could make or break the Republican hold on legislative power 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 and dilute the power of the voting public.

Three separate lawsuits, including the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and the North Carolina NAACP, are conjoining in the trial. The co-plaintiffs accuse Republicans of discriminating against minority communities in particular and tipping the scales too much towards the ruling party.

"What really makes this plan so clearly an outlier is when you look district by district, and you can see in the vast majority of the districts, over half of them are partisan outliers and many of them are 100% partisan outliers," Jowei Chen, a political science expert from the University of Michigan, testified on Monday. "They are statistical outliers in terms of their Republican vote share composition."

According to Chen's research, more than 1,000 computer-simulated maps forecasted a range of outcomes that split North Carolina's 14 Congressional districts -- but none as extreme as at least 10 Republicans and four Democrats, which many analysts say believe the new maps will produce.

"The very point of comparing the enacted plan to these simulated plans is to have an apples-to-apples comparison," Chen said.

A second witness for the plaintiffs, Western Carolina University professor Chris Cooper, further scrutinized the maps for what he calls "cracking and packing" voters, which deprive them of adequate representation in government.

In the 12th district, for instance, Cooper took issue with how it pairs parts of Democratic and urban Greensboro with more rural, mountainous and heavily Republican Lenoir County.

"This cuts across multiple area codes and cuts across multiple media markets. These are radically different elevations. There's pretty much nothing that draws these areas together other than the fact that they happen to be in the State of North Carolina," Cooper said. "It ensures that voters in Guilford County, an obviously very Democratic area, won't be represented by a Democrat. They will be represented by three different Republicans in Congress."

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, because of the redistricting controversy.

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 last fall.

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."

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, a practice also known as "gerrymandering."

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 Tar Heel 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, federal courts have also weighed into North Carolina's gerrymandering issues, including a Court of Appeals' decision deriding the gerrymanders as racially motivated and ordering new maps.

The U.S. Supreme Court ultimately affirmed that ruling, but a separate case involving North Carolina a few years later ushered in a new precedent specifically for partisan redistricting, and not based on race. In that landmark decision in 201, 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.

IMPACT ON 2022 MIDTERMS

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

"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.

Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives currently hold a slim nine-seat advantage and thus can only afford to lose four seats if they want to retain the majority. Should the existing North Carolina maps stand, that alone could wipe out at least two of those seats, including incumbent Rep. Kathy Manning from Greensboro.
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