NC voting maps go on trial on Monday: Here are answers to 10 key questions

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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — The new year will start dramatically in North Carolina, with a trial in Raleigh possibly deciding the electoral maps for 2022 and political control of the state for the foreseeable future.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Banner Elk
Rep. Kathy Manning, D-Greensboro (WGHP file photo)

You know the situation: The General Assembly on Nov. 4 passed voting maps it had drawn from data provided by the 2020 census for both Congress and the state House and Senate. The congressional maps changed dramatically and likely would increase the GOP’s dominance. The effects in the Piedmont Triad were dramatic, with Guilford County being divided among three Congressional Districts and almost all of 14 counties getting new representation. For Guilford County, the 11th District has two incumbents, Republican Virginia Foxx (Banner Elk) and Democrat Kathy Manning (Greensboro); the 10th District has Rep. Richard Hudson, R-Concord; and the 7th District has no incumbent. Wake and Mecklenburg counties likewise were split into multiple districts that in some cases were merged with more rural neighboring counties. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-Mecklenburg) is vacating the 9th District and will run in the 8th, much of which he had served. The General Assembly could see the return of a Republican supermajority, which could make its actions veto-proof.

You know the players: Republicans control the state legislature, which is assigned responsibility for drawing election maps. Unlike some other states, there is no independent commission or bipartisan process. Gov. Roy Cooper has no veto voice on election maps.

You know how this works: The courts in the past decade have been very active in hearing arguments about and ordering changes of voting maps. At least three lawsuits were filed immediately that challenged the maps based on partisan and racial gerrymandering. Various state courts reviewed those suits and issued various rulings in the past two months. None at first would disrupt the election calendar to accommodate the suits.

Where we stand: Then on Dec. 8 the NC Supreme Court delayed candidate filing just after it began on Dec. 6 and delayed the Primary Election from March 8 to May 17.  It also ordered the trials of these lawsuits to be concluded by Jan. 11.

You may have questions. We may have the answers to 10 of them.

1. When and where will the lawsuits about redistricting in North Carolina be tried in court?

In 2016 and 2018 maps in North Carolina were required to be redrawn by both state and federal courts (WGHP file photo)

Starting Jan. 3, two suits will go to trial in Wake County Superior Court in Raleigh as the next step – and the reason for the injunction to delay candidate filing issued by the NC Supreme Court – to determine the validity of the maps.  The more prominent suit is North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and a group of former elected officials, civil rights leaders and computer science professors. The defendants are the chairs of the House and Senate Redistricting Committees – Rep. Destin Hall, Sen. Warren Daniel, Sen. Ralph Hise and Sen. Paul Newton. Speaker of the House Tim Moore and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger also are named along with members of the state board of elections. That suit is joined by Harper v. Lewis, which was filed by a group of voters, led by Rebecca Harper, against Rep. David R. Lewis, senior chair of the House Redistricting Committee, and several of the same defendants as in the other suit. Common Cause, which was active in redistricting litigation in the past decade, has filed to intervene in this case, meaning it will join as a party to the suits.

2. What do these suits say is wrong with the maps?

In general both argue that voters are disenfranchised by “extreme partisan gerrymandering” because the new election maps likely would expand Republicans’ representation in Congress and their control of the state House and Senate, based on voting records. These suits also argue that the maps dilute the voting power of Black citizens, which helps tip the balance of elections in favor of the GOP and brings racial gerrymandering into the picture.

The approved congressional map for North Carolina. (NCGA)

3. Are their arguments correct? Would the GOP dominate?

Voting records analyses published by The News & Observer in Raleigh found the state’s congressional split likely would be 11-3 in favor of the GOP and at best 10-4. The state has a Democratic governor and attorney general but gave former President Donald Trump a 1.4% edge over President Joe Biden in 2020. The state is considered “purple” – as opposed to “red” or “blue” – with more registered Democratic voters (nearly 2.5 million) than unaffiliated (about 30,000 less) and Republicans (2.2 million). The current congressional split is 8-5 in favor of the GOP, but the growth in population shown by the census provides an additional seat in the House, which caused the existing maps to change dramatically.

State Senate districts with incumbents (NCGA)
State House districts with incumbents (NCGA)

4. What do the experts say about that?

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which follows maps drawn across the country, gave North Carolina’s districts for congress and state house and senate overall grades of “F.” They did give the state legislative maps “B’s” for geographic features, meaning compact districts and few county splits. Princeton said all maps provided “an extreme Republican advantage.”

5. Haven’t we been through this before?

One of the lawsuits suggested this be the map for North Carolina (WGHP file photo)

Yes, there have been two major developments with redistricting in the past five years. In 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court ordered legislative maps to be redrawn because of racial gerrymandering. You may recall that long, skinny district that attached Greensboro and Charlotte – the “I-85 District” – and was represented by Rep. Alma Adams. But the General Assembly then used election data in its next set of maps – with some members admitting that they were gerrymandered for a GOP advantage – and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro in 2018 forced those maps to be redrawn (by a court-hired consultant) for 2020. You may recall that the formerly divided Guilford County – with the line between the 6th and 13th Districts splitting the NC A&T campus – was kept whole and joined with neighboring Winston-Salem in House District 6.

6. So if the courts have ruled that earlier maps were drawn unfairly, why did the General Assembly do it again?

Republicans have argued that they did not use political data in drawing these new maps and that they most certainly didn’t use race (which the courts had cited in earlier rulings). “When we look at race, we were told we shouldn’t have, and those maps were struck down,” state Sen. Paul Newton, who co-chairs the  redistricting committee, told The Associated Press. “Now that we’re not looking at race, the Democrat Party is telling us, ‘Oh, you should be looking at race.’”

7. Why are these suits so late in being brought?

You may recall that arguments about rules, the pandemic and political winds delayed the collection and distribution of data from the 2020 census by about five months (vs. the timetable from 2010), so the General Assembly got a late start in drawing districts. The city of Greensboro was supposed to have had municipal elections in 2021, but those were delayed until the spring because new City Council districts couldn’t be drawn in time.  The General Assembly didn’t complete its work on maps until Nov. 4, when those now in place were adopted. You can learn a whole lot more at All About Redistricting.

8. Those earlier lawsuits took months and even years to adjust maps drawn in 2011. How can we reach a decision on this in time for the adjusted primary schedule in May?

The NC Supreme Court’s pause in the election calendar specifies that this trial must be concluded by mid-January, and it expedites the process for the almost certain appeals to work their way to those seven justices. This trial is scheduled for Jan. 3-5, with closing arguments on Jan. 6. The Supreme Court set a Jan. 11 deadline for “a written ruling.” The odds on their being appeals file are prohibitive.

9. If appeals to these cases were to reach the NC Supreme Court, would there be a problem with one of the sitting justices, Phil Berger Jr., hearing a case in which his father is among the defendants?

Phil Berger Jr.

We don’t know what the court might have discussed about that before issuing its stay on election filing on Dec. 8. The court did so by “conference” and did not disclose how the seven justices voted (the court has a 4-3 edge for Democrats). We don’t know if Justice Berger recused or weighed in on that decision. U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop (R-Charlotte) has filed suit to force disclosure on this issue. The lawsuits being heard specifically ask the court to require Justice Berger to be recused. The defendants argue that his father only is named in the suit because of his official capacity, not his personal interests. The recusal issue is nothing new when it comes to the court, and that’s not solely about the Bergers. But other than the lawsuit’s pleadings, there has been no public statement about this issue and how it might play out. Public Policy Polling, which conducted a poll for the left-leaning Progress North Carolina, asked the question, and 72% of respondents said Justice Berger should recuse himself, and only 14% said they thought he could hear the case and rule fairly. The rest were undecided.

10. Where do most people stand with all of this?

We expect everyone is quite weary of this political football, as it were. If you believe polls, there are a couple that give us an idea. That Public Policy poll says 70% describe gerrymandering as either a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem, and 74% support efforts by the courts to guarantee fair and constitutional district maps. That includes 66% of Republicans. Respondents in that poll were 37% Democrat, 33% Republican and 30% independent. A poll by RepresentUs is even more dramatic, saying its findings show 90% would oppose gerrymandering “even if their preferred candidate or party may sometimes lose the election.” That poll was conducted by YouGov.

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