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Holder-affiliated group launches new challenge to partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina

A map of North Carolina’s state legislative districts is shown in July in a trial over partisan gerrymandering. A three-judge panel of the Wake County Superior Court ruled Sept. 3 that the district boundaries were unconstitutionally partisan.
A map of North Carolina’s state legislative districts is shown in July in a trial over partisan gerrymandering. A three-judge panel of the Wake County Superior Court ruled Sept. 3 that the district boundaries were unconstitutionally partisan. (Gerry Broome/AP)

A nonprofit organization connected to former Obama attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr. is launching a new challenge to partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina, filing a lawsuit Friday in state court seeking to throw out the state’s GOP-drawn congressional districts in time for the 2020 elections.

The suit, filed by the National Redistricting Foundation, a nonprofit affiliate of a political committee led by Holder, aims to capi­tal­ize on a recent state ruling that portions of North Carolina’s state legislative districts are unconstitutionally gerrymandered to maximize Republicans’ advantage.

Read the lawsuit here

“For nearly a decade, the people of North Carolina have been forced to vote on manipulated electoral maps that were drawn by Republicans in the legislature to create a partisan outcome,” Holder said in a statement. “It’s time for this era of gerrymandering in North Carolina to come to an end.”

The suit quotes a three-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court, which wrote that district maps are unconstitutional if they are drawn “with a predominant intent to favor voters aligned with one political party at the expense of other voters.”

The suit calls the state’s congressional map “the most extreme and brazen partisan gerrymander in American history.” It cites the Republican legislative leaders who established “partisan advantage” as an official criterion and directed that the map be drawn to “maintain the current partisan makeup of North Carolina’s congressional delegation.”

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State Rep. David Lewis (R), a defendant and the chairman of the state House redistricting committee, said at the time: “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

The map, drawn in 2016, succeeded in that regard, keeping Republicans in control of 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats in both federal elections since then — even though Democrats won 47 percent of the overall vote in 2016 and a majority of the vote in 2018.

Lewis and a redistricting committee colleague, Republican state Rep. Destin Hall, issued a joint statement Friday blasting Holder’s group as a “phony Sue ’til Blue ‘fair maps’ group.”

“Just as North Carolina Republicans returned a strong delegation to Congress following the previous partisan challenge to these districts — and considering the utter lunacy that has taken hold of Democrats in Washington D.C. — conservatives will have no problem returning a powerful group of representatives to the U.S. House under any election lines,” the two Republicans said.

Republicans drew the current districts after the Supreme Court ruled that the previous map had been unconstitutionally gerrymandered along racial lines.

The Supreme Court took a different position in July regarding partisan gerrymandering, ruling in another case involving North Carolina’s congressional districts that the federal courts have no jurisdiction in such cases.

Supreme Court: No role for federal courts in partisan gerrymandering claims

That decision redirected the efforts of redistricting reformers, who promised to take their fight to state courts.

The Sept. 3 ruling on the state legislative map in North Carolina was their first major victory since then, bolstering the hopes of activists who have been pushing for an end to partisan gerrymandering.

One uncertainty with the latest suit, however, is whether it will wind through court quickly enough to produce new districts in time for the 2020 elections.

“While this lawsuit is welcome, it comes very late,” Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida who focuses on election law, said in a tweet Friday morning. “NC congressional primary deadlines are Dec. 20. That’s less than 3 months to gather evidence, hold a trial, and implement a remedy. Democrats are likely going to have to hope the courts are willing to delay the primary.”

The suit names individual voters from each of the state’s 13 congressional districts as plaintiffs. According to the suit, some live in overwhelmingly “packed” Democratic districts that ensure that the surrounding districts favor Republicans, while others live in “cracked” Democratic enclaves that were divided between two districts to dilute their electoral power.

Among them is Amy Clare Oseroff, a teacher from Greenville who lives in the 1st Congressional District, into which Republicans packed the most heavily Democratic areas in Pitt and Wilson counties to create an overwhelmingly Democratic district — leaving the nearby 2nd and 3rd districts more favorable to Republicans.

The map “meticulously packs and cracks Democratic voters in each and every district — without exception,” the suit states.

Decision on gerrymandering brings new urgency to Democratic fight to win state seats

The suit also cites the map’s division of the campus of North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro — the largest historically black university in the country. The boundary between the 6th and 13th districts cuts directly through campus, an egregious example of “cracking,” according to the suit. In Asheville, the University of North Carolina is split so dramatically that students on different sides of the same dormitory live in different congressional districts, the suit states.

Aside from Lewis, the defendants include Republican House Speaker Timothy Moore, Senate President Philip Berger and the State Board of Elections.

The suit makes numerous references to Thomas Hofeller, a longtime Republican strategist who specialized in drawing district boundaries and who gained attention this year, nearly a year after his death, when his estranged daughter released thousands of files from his business showing the extent to which he and Republicans used race and partisanship to draw boundaries.

The files also showed that Hofeller was among those who had pushed the Trump administration to seek a citizenship question on the 2020 Census, which he concluded would allow Republicans to exclude noncitizens from apportionment considerations and draw even more gerrymandered maps.

In a past lawsuit, Hofeller testified that his goal in North Carolina was to “minimize the number of districts in which Democrats would have an opportunity to elect a Democratic candidate.” He did so, he testified, with a sophisticated analysis of past voting behavior of residents of each district.

He also did so before the legislative redistricting committees ever met, according to Lewis, who testified in a previous suit that he visited Hofeller’s home numerous times to see the progress of the map.

The suit argues that the congressional map violates the state constitution’s free elections clause, equal protection clause and freedom of speech and assembly clauses — exactly the provisions under which the three-judge panel invalidated the state legislative maps three weeks ago.

“The facts of this case are undisputed, and the law of North Carolina is now settled,” the suit states. “This Court should invalidate the gerrymandered 2016 congressional map immediately and order a new, fair map for use in the 2020 elections.”

Like the successful challenge against the state legislative districts, the suit is being funded by the National Redistricting Foundation, the 501(c)(3) affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.