Short of canceling a scheduled election, or suspending a duly elected legislative body (as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is currently attempting to do), partisan gerrymandering is as stark an assault on democracy as you will find. And since Republicans used the advantage they gained in the 2010 “wave” election to lock in legislative majorities across the country, gerrymandering has proven to be the most damaging of their assaults—especially in North Carolina.
For the better part of a decade, advocates for fair elections have battled in the courts to overturn Republican-drawn maps for state legislative and congressional districts in the Tar Heel State. They have had wins and losses—including the US Supreme Court’s heartbreaking 5-4 decision in June, which held that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”
After the high court’s decision, foes of partisan gerrymandering shifted their focus to state courts. And on Tuesday, they scored a victory that’s significant not just for North Carolina but for the many states where biased maps have compromised free and fair elections. The panel of three judges ruled unanimously in Common Cause v. Lewis that the Republican-control North Carolina General Assembly had violated the state constitution when it gerrymandered legislative maps with an eye toward thwarting serious competition for state house and senate seats. The judges order that the districts be redrawn in time for the 2020 election.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, noted after the 2018 election that “while Democrats received 50 percent of the votes for the N.C. Senate, they received only 42 percent of seats. And while they received 50.5 percent of the votes for the N.C. House, they received only 45 percent of seats.”
“This is a historic victory for the people of North Carolina,” declared Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause in North Carolina. “Thanks to the court’s landmark decision, politicians in Raleigh will no longer be able to rig our elections through partisan gerrymandering.”
As to be expected, North Carolina Republicans are howling mad, particularly after the US Supreme Court rejected a challenge to the state’s gerrymandered congressional districts.
But here’s the difference between the two cases: The North Carolina judges determined that the Republican maps violated the state constitution: “it is the carefully crafted maps, and not the will of the voters, that dictate the election outcomes in a significant number of legislative districts and, ultimately, the majority control of the General Assembly.”
The state court’s 357-page decision was detailed and firm in its conclusion that legislative contests in the state had been “significantly tainted in that they unconstitutionally deprive every citizen of the right to elections for members of the General Assembly conducted freely and honestly to ascertain, fairly and truthfully, the will of the People.” That led Phil Berger, the Republican leader in the state Senate, to grudgingly accept the determination, saying that “we intend to respect the court’s decision and finally put this divisive battle behind us.”
“Nearly a decade of relentless litigation has strained the legitimacy of this state’s institutions, and the relationship between its leaders, to the breaking point, explained Berger. “It’s time to move on.”
The prospect that North Carolina will have competitive legislative elections next year—and that Democrats could win those elections—opens the door to even more breakthroughs for democracy. If Democrats control the governorship and the legislature, maps that will eventually be drawn based on 2020 Census data could help restore fairness to US House races. Thus, what North Carolina State Representative Graig Meyer characterized as “a game changer for 2020” could usher in an extended era of competitive state and federal elections. North Carolina State Senator Jeff Jackson put it best: “the fairness of North Carolina elections just got a permanent upgrade.”
Despite this summer’s US Supreme Court ruling, there is now hope that savvy legal and political strategies really can begin to upend gerrymandering across the country.
“A narrow majority on the United States Supreme Court turned their backs on the voters in North Carolina in June refusing to curb the blatant partisan gerrymander, but today the state’s own court stood up for the rights of those voters under the state constitution,” explained Karen Hobert Flynn, the national president of Common Cause. “This victory joins a growing list of victories in the fight to end gerrymandering nationwide. The battles do not end here though.”