Opinion

Prospects bright for NC ending gerrymandering

The head of Common Cause NC testifies at gerrymandering trial

Common Cause NC Executive Director Bob Phillips testifies as the NC gerrymandering trial gets underway at Campbell Law School. on Monday, July 15, 2019.
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Common Cause NC Executive Director Bob Phillips testifies as the NC gerrymandering trial gets underway at Campbell Law School. on Monday, July 15, 2019.

As special counsel Robert Mueller and a Senate Intelligence Committee report warned last week about foreign nations trying to alter U.S. elections, plaintiffs in a Raleigh civil trial focused on blocking a domestic — and for now, regrettably legal — method of skewing election results — partisan gerrymandering.

The trial ended Friday and a decision by the three-judge panel is expected as soon as September. Regardless of the outcome, the case will likely end up before the North Carolina Supreme Court. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs at that level would render partisan gerrymandering illegal in North Carolina.

The case pits the plaintiffs — the advocacy group Common Cause, the state Democratic Party and a group of citizens — against the General Assembly’s Republican leaders, who oversaw the drawing of state legislative maps that have protected their legislative majority.

As the trial concluded, the plaintiffs felt confident. “In some ways, it may have exceeded my expectations,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina. told the editorial board.He said the plaintiffs’ lawyers made “a particularly compelling case” that partisan maps violate citizen rights under the state Constitution.

The plaintiffs also got unintended help from the other side. Key evidence in the plaintiffs’ favor came from the files of a late mapmaker hired by Republican lawmakers. And testimony from an expert witness for the defense was struck from the record after his presentation of the Republican-drawn maps was shown to be in error.

The two-week trial held at Campbell University’s law school showed the raw partisan calculations that shaped the maps. Republicans retained majorities in both the state House and Senate in 2018 despite getting fewer overall votes than Democrats.

The trial also revealed that Republican lawmakers may have misled a federal court in 2017. After the court threw out legislative maps as illegal racial gerrymanders and asked for a special election under new maps, the Republicans defendants said they couldn’t hold public hearings and draw new maps in time for a special election. The court reluctantly agreed. The trial showed that more than 90 percent of the new maps the Republicans used in the 2018 election had already been drawn by their mapmaker, the late Thomas Hofeller, a nationally known consultant who has been called “the Michelangelo of gerrymandering.”

By dodging that special election, Republicans maintained a supermajority long enough to add six constitutional amendments to the 2018 ballot. Two that passed — a photo ID requirement for voting and an amendment to lower the cap on income tax rates — face legal challenges. Superior Court judge Bryan Collins ruled in February that the amendments were put on the ballot by an illegitimate Republican supermajority. The case is before the Court of Appeals.

For Common Cause, the strong showing in its state-level challenge to partisan gerrymandering takes some of the sting out of being turned back by the U.S. Supreme Court in its federal challenge to the practice. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 ruling in which he said Congress and the states should decide on the legality of partisan gerrymandering.

Now North Carolina is on the cusp of such a decision, one that could slay a political dragon that both parties have used to skew election results. If partisan gerrymandering is found to violate the state Constitution, it will create an incentive for both parties to shift the drawing of legislative and congressional districts from legislators to an independent commission.

Imagine that, letting voters speak with a voice no longer muffled by partisan gerrymandering. It would be the achievement of an elusive ideal — real democracy.

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