League of Women Voters challenges NC congressional districts as partisan gerrymanders

A lawsuit filed on Tuesday is the second in North Carolina that could test the breadth to which lawmakers can design congressional districts to a political advantage.

The League of Women Voters and a dozen Democratic voters filed their case in federal court challenging the North Carolina congressional district plan drawn in a special legislative session earlier this year.

While redrawing the congressional districts this past winter to satisfy a federal court order, Republican state lawmakers emphasized that the new lines were meant to keep Republicans in control of 10 seats in North Carolina’s delegation, leaving three seats for Democrats.

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and House redistricting leader, said at a meeting that he wanted the maps drawn “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.”

A three-judge panel had found two of the 13 districts drawn in 2011 to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders designed to weaken the black vote in North Carolina.

The League of Women Voters and the Democrats who brought the suit with the nonpartisan organization contend that the redistricting plan violates free speech and equal protection rights.

“The Constitution guarantees everyone’s right to participate equally in an electoral system that does not discriminate against them because of their beliefs,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “It’s clear that the intent and effect of creating North Carolina’s 2016 congressional maps were to manipulate the democratic process. The result disparages voters and ensures that one party can maintain political power even when a majority of the state’s voters do not support them.”

Though the courts have allowed redistricting plans to go forward despite partisan gerrymander claims, the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1986 that such claims present a legal controversy that could be further tested.

In August, Common Cause, an organization that has been critical of both parties for partisan gerrymandering, filed a lawsuit against Lewis and Sen. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County, legislative leaders, the State Board of Elections and Gov. Pat McCrory.

The League of Women Voters lawsuit lists many of the same defendants.

“No matter how many costly and duplicative lawsuits special interest groups continue to file against our Congressional map, it doesn’t change the fact that it splits fewer counties and fewer precincts than any map in modern state history – it just may not elect enough Democrats for their liking,” Rucho and Lewis said in a joint statement.

In the lawsuit, the attorneys use an empirical analysis to demonstrate the extent to which they contend an extreme gerrymander exists.

Their analysis uses a method of compiling voting data to show what they contend is an “efficiency gap.”

The analysis, developed by Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a University of Chicago law school professor, and Eric McGhee, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, is built on a theory that gerrymanders force the disadvantaged party to “waste” votes. Voters are shifted into districts where their votes won’t matter, either because their party’s candidate can’t win or is already sure to win.

“A gerrymander,” Stephanopoulos and McGhee have written, “is simply a district plan that results in one party wasting many more votes than its adversary.”

According to the complaint, North Carolina’s “efficiency gaps” in 2012 and 2014 “exhibited pro-Republican partisan biases larger than 25 percent— by far the worst in North Carolina’s modern history and at the far edge of the nationwide distribution.”

The challengers contend that with such a blunt announcement that the new plans were drawn to partisan advantage that 2016 results will be even worse.

“When it comes to congressional districts, North Carolina’s are an extreme and egregious partisan gerrymander. Packing and cracking voters in districts based on their political ideology and voting history classifies voters in an invidious manner unrelated to any legitimate legislative objective,” Gerry Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, said in a statement distributed by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Radical partisan gerrymandering like that in this case turns democracy on its head. For the sake of North Carolina voters and voters across our nation, this practice must come to an end. The implementation of our efficiency gap standard would go a long way in ensuring that every voter is entitled to equal protection under the law and having their voice heard.”

The challengers said in their lawsuit that they “do not aim to replace a pro-Republican gerrymander with a pro-Democratic one.”

“Rather, “ they complaints add, the challengers “seek the enactment of a balanced map that does not give either side an unfair partisan advantage as a remedy.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1