On Monday, a bipartisan panel of state court judges delivered a monumental victory against the worst gerrymander in modern history when it blocked North Carolina from using its Republican-drawn congressional map in the 2020 elections and ordered the GOP-run legislature to come up with a fairer replacement.
The court granted the Democratic plaintiffs’ request for a preliminary injunction against the map before the case goes to trial on the merits, citing the mountain of evidence of the map’s discriminatory intent and effects.
The evidence against the congressional map is, in fact, overwhelming: Republicans explicitly stated that it was a “political gerrymander” drawn to maintain the GOP’s 10-3 advantage in the state’s 13-member congressional delegation—and admitted they didn’t go further only because they thought it was literally impossible to draw a map that would guarantee them 11 seats.
Republicans made this admission in a perverse defense of a new map they created in 2016 after their previous districts were invalidated for illegally diminishing the power of black voters. In other words, said the GOP, we didn’t draw a racial gerrymander—we drew a partisan gerrymander (never mind that race and party are strongly correlated).
That display of chutzpah already came close to derailing Republicans last year, when a federal court found that partisan gerrymanders did indeed violate the U.S. Constitution. The GOP was bailed out, though, when conservatives on the Supreme Court ruled that claims of excessive partisanship in electoral maps couldn’t be litigated in the federal court system. However, Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his opinion that such maps could be challenged in state court under state constitutions—advice the plaintiffs took to heart.
With the GOP’s smoking gun confession in hand, the plaintiffs relied solely on state constitutional protections to invalidate the map, and it’s now the second time this decade that North Carolina Republicans have seen their congressional map struck down. This latest defeat also comes right on the heels of another loss for Republicans: A September ruling saw this same court unanimously throw out the GOP’s legislative gerrymanders, all but guaranteeing that Republicans will lose at trial if the congressional case goes that far.
Republicans didn’t appeal their loss in the legislative gerrymandering case, likely because they feared an even worse defeat before the state Supreme Court, which would set a binding precedent statewide. However, they may be less inclined to give up on their congressional map so easily.
The GOP’s current strategy relies on arguing that it’s too late to redraw the districts for 2020, with the candidate filing period for the March 3 primary beginning on Dec. 2. Since a new map will be required after the next census in 2020 in any event, a long enough delay would run out the clock on this lawsuit. However, this gambit is likely to fail. Back in 2016, Republicans’ congressional gerrymander was struck down and redrawn in February of that year, without adversely effecting the administration of North Carolina’s elections.
Republican legislators will likely get another chance to draw new maps, which would be subject to the court’s approval. However, given the GOP’s lengthy history of violating the rights of voters, it’s possible the judges could step in to draw their own districts instead. Either way, after four elections with the most extreme congressional gerrymanders of the last several decades, North Carolina voters could finally enjoy a much fairer map next year.
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