Politics & Government

Democrats challenge North Carolina’s congressional maps in new gerrymandering lawsuit

After getting many of the districts used to elect state legislators overturned as unconstitutional earlier this month, Democrats now have their sights on a new target: North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts.

A new lawsuit, filed Friday in Wake County, claims the districts used to elect North Carolina’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives are unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. It makes many of the same arguments as the recent lawsuit against the state legislative districts.

Individual voters from around the state are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They’re backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, which is part of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general under President Barack Obama, leads the group.

“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 announcing the lawsuit. “It’s time for this era of gerrymandering in North Carolina to come to an end.”

The group also helped fund the previous lawsuit over the state legislative lines.

North Carolina Republicans, however, criticize Holder as a hypocrite. They say his group only funds lawsuits against gerrymandering in states where Republicans draw the maps, and not any states where it’s Democrats doing the gerrymandering.

“Eric Holder’s sue ‘til blue endgame is a Democratic legislative majority created by Democratic judges,” Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said in a news release his office sent out by email on Friday. “Anybody who doubts that Holder’s support for ‘fair maps’ is a phony front to help Democrats just needs to answer one question: How many blue states has Holder sued?”

In North Carolina’s U.S. House delegation, Republicans hold 10 of the state’s 13 seats, even though North Carolina as a whole is roughly evenly split between Republican and Democratic voters. In 2016, for example, North Carolinians supported Republican President Donald Trump but also Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, both of whom won their races by narrow margins.

The lawsuit focuses on that lopsided representation — similar to how the last lawsuit focused on the fact that Republicans won a majority of seats in the state legislature in 2018, even though Democrats won a majority of votes for those seats.

One loss already

It’s not the first lawsuit against these congressional maps.

In June the U.S. Supreme Court declined to strike down these 13 districts as unconstitutional, in a 5-4 ruling split along the court’s ideological lines with the more conservative justices out-voting the more liberal justices.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion, criticized partisan gerrymandering as “incompatible with democratic principles” but added that it’s up to Congress, or to the individual states, to solve that problem and not the federal courts.

In a statement Friday about the new lawsuit, state Republican Party Chairman Michael Whatley called it “yet another effort by a party to tie the state up in expensive legal shenanigans because they lost at the Supreme Court of the United States. Instead of working to win on their opponent’s maps, as Republicans did, they’re now trying to get an unelected body to draw lines to ensure their victory. This isn’t about fair maps; It’s about Democrats judge-shopping in order to subvert democracy.”

Earlier this month, Democrats won in a case that challenged the state legislative districts — not the congressional districts — as unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

A panel of two Democratic judges and one Republican judge ruled unanimously that the state’s legislative lines were unconstitutional. They found the maps violated language in the state constitution, which does not exist in the federal constitution, guaranteeing fair elections.

Republican lawmakers chose not to appeal that ruling, and instead drew new maps, which the court is currently looking at to determine if they are acceptable.

This new lawsuit was filed less than a month after the ruling in that other lawsuit was announced.

“North Carolina’s 2016 congressional map may be the most extreme and brazen partisan gerrymander in American history,” said R. Stanton Jones, a lawyer for the challengers in the new lawsuit, said in the announcement. “It is time for the congressional map to meet the same fate as the gerrymandered state legislative maps recently struck down under the North Carolina Constitution.”

With the 2020 elections starting — candidate filing starts this December and the primaries are in March — it’s unclear whether this lawsuit would lead to new maps for the 2020 races even if the challengers were to win.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.