Court documents submitted by the advocacy group Common Cause show that Republican lawmakers’ effort to hold onto their General Assembly super majority may have gone beyond old-fashioned gerrymandering. It may also have involved misleading a federal court and the public.
A federal court found in August 2016 that the Republicans’ legislative majority was elected using maps that were illegally gerrymandered, but a Supreme Court appeal delayed a final order upholding the lower court until June 2017. A special election could have followed, but the Republican defendants said they couldn’t complete new maps in time and the court agreed. As a result, Republicans kept their veto-proof majority for almost a year until the next regular election in November 2018. They used that time to attempt to tilt judicial elections in their favor, undermine the power of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and put six proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.
Now, according to a New York Times report on the documents, it appears the Republicans’ chief mapmaker, the late Thomas Hofeller, had nearly completed new legislative maps in mid-2017 and a special election could have been held. Secondly, Republican claims that their revised 2018 maps were composed by following standard criteria and redistricting practices may not be true. The map-drawing process appears to have been farmed out to Hofeller, and the legislative debates and public hearings about setting new district lines were a sham.
The federal case found the redistricting maps drawn by the new Republican majority in 2011 and used prior to 2018 had been illegally racially gerrymandered. Now there is a state case brought by Common Cause and others challenging the 2018 legislative maps as illegal because they are highly partisan, a new angle of attack on gerrymandering. The documents submitted by Common Cause summarize material on Hofeller’s computer drives. The group says the material strengthens its claim that the legislative process of setting districts was handed over to a consultant for the sole purpose of maximizing Republicans’ advantage in elections.
Hofeller has been described as the “Michelangelo of gerrymandering” for his redistricting work around the nation. He died in Raleigh in August 2018. His estranged daughter came into possession of his computer hard drives and thumb drives containing 75,000 files and has provided them to Common Cause. Material from his computer has also been cited in a case challenging the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Lawyers for the General Assembly want the computer records ruled confidential and returned to Hofeller’s estate.
State Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), one of the leaders of the redistricting process, dismissed claims that Hofeller’s maps could have been readily adopted for a special election. He said the Republican maps were drawn by the redistricting committee and he had no access to “play maps” Hofeller may have drawn on his own.
Lewis’ response rings hollow. It’s unlikely that Hofeller was simply doodling when he composed alternative North Carolina maps. As more material emerges from his computer files, the Republican attempts to bend the system to their purposes will grow even more apparent.
It’s no small irony that the man whose maps helped seal Republican majorities in many state legislatures has left behind a map of another sort: a collection of damning information that may show the way to the end of gerrymandering.