Left to right, Superior Court Judges Nathaniel Poovey (R), Graham Shirley (R) and Dawn Layton (D), oversee the trial to determine whether maps drawn by the General Assembly are too severely gerrymandered to be allowed under North Carolina's Constitution. Screenshot courtesy of WRAL

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Over two days of court hearings this week, several of the country’s leading redistricting experts said Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly intentionally created political maps following the 2020 census as extreme and enduring partisan gerrymanders to favor their own party in the legislature and the state’s congressional delegation.

“I found the chance that such maps were drawn by hazard, without an intentional thumb on the scales, astronomically small,” said Jonathan Mattingly, professor of mathematics at Duke University and one of the experts in the case. 

The advocacy groups suing the legislature argue gerrymandering is bad for democracy and minority groups, especially for Black North Carolinians.

Their experts, who finished presenting their reports on Tuesday, said Republicans intentionally biased the maps in their own favor, other possible maps were fairer and more responsive to changing political opinions, and gerrymandering is part of a cycle of racially discriminatory laws seeking to disenfranchise Black voters.

A three-judge panel from Wake County Superior Court is hearing the case this week and is expected to rule by early next week. Appeals to the N.C. Supreme Court are expected. 

If the courts uphold the maps, Republicans are all but guaranteed to hold a majority, if not secure a veto-proof supermajority, in the General Assembly, where all 170 seats are up for grabs in 2022.

The maps would enable them to keep that power through the rest of the decade, when they would presumably be able to again draw maps in their favor after the 2030 census, locking in power for the foreseeable future. 

In the short term, North Carolina gerrymandering could also play a decisive role in the federal balance of power, where Democrats hold a fragile majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. The current, enacted maps would give Republicans a likely 10-4 and possible 11-3 edge after the state gained an additional seat due to population increase, compared with the current split of eight Republicans and five Democrats. 

The public can watch ongoing court proceedings on WRAL’s website from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday, when legislative defendants are expected to argue the maps are not as extreme as the plaintiffs say and gerrymandering is allowed under the state constitution, according to their court filings. 

Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday. Then, the trial court will need to decide by Tuesday whether the court can even block gerrymandering and, if so, what constraints the judges can put on the legislature. 

The case is significant enough that the state Supreme Court already delayed the 2022 primary elections from March until May and said appeals will be taken up quickly, giving time to redraw maps, if necessary. 

Outlier maps 

Much of the expert testimony over the first two days of the trial had to do with legislative intent. In previous rulings, the judges overseeing the case wrote that the plaintiffs may have to show that the Republican legislature intentionally drew hyperpartisan maps in order to win their case. 

In response, the plaintiffs asked their experts to use math to analyze whether the legislature could have drawn the maps without tilting the scales on purpose. 

Three different groups, the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, the Democratic Party-backed National Redistricting Committee and Common Cause, are all suing the state over the maps. 

They all presented their own experts, causing the trial to run like a who’s who of many of the nation’s most prominent redistricting experts who unanimously concluded there was either “vanishingly small” chances or no chance at all Republicans drew their maps without specific partisan intent. 

The trial started Monday morning with University of Michigan political science professor Jowei Chen, who used computer algorithms to generate thousands of possible alternative maps for comparison with the legislature’s maps.

Chen said the legislature’s enacted maps depress competitiveness compared with a typical map, meaning that across the state, Republicans will win a disproportionate number of seats even if voting favors Democrats. 

His testimony, like that of other experts, focused on the criteria the legislature used to draw its maps. Chen said the legislature did not follow its own rules by splitting more counties and voting districts than necessary and by drawing sprawling political districts. 

Chen was followed by Duke’s Mattingly, Binghampton University’s Daniel Magleby, Carnegie Mellon University’s Wesley Pegden and Tufts University’s Moon Duchin

Each used mathematical models to analyze the legislative maps for partisanship. Across different methods, each independently came to the same conclusions: The maps are partisan gerrymanders intentionally designed to favor Republicans and even survive potential voter swings preferring Democrats. 

Maps in history 

The plaintiffs also called on experts in North Carolina’s politics and history to give the long view of how race and party have affected politics in the state. 

“North Carolina has a long and cyclic history of Black political gains answered by conservative white backlash and retrenchments,” said James Leloudis, professor of history at the University of North Carolina who specializes in race, politics and governance in North Carolina. 

He described a cycle going back 150 years in which Black North Carolinians earned the right to vote, which white politicians then took away or severely limited. 

Leloudis pointed to the last 10 years of redistricting and voting rights cases, in which state and federal courts have repeatedly overturned Republican political maps, voter ID requirements and other voting changes because they are racially discriminatory

“All of those measures, each and every one of them, have been judged by the courts as violations of minority voters’ constitutionally protected rights,” Leloudis said. 

The plaintiffs’ other expert, Western Carolina University political science professor Chris Cooper, pointed out the historical oddity of the congressional districts Republican legislators drew. 

Two of the enacted congressional districts paired counties that had never before been grouped together in the state’s history and that there is “pretty much nothing that draws these areas together, other than the fact that they happen to be in North Carolina,” Cooper said. 

That odd geographic combination served to split Guilford County, one of the most Democratic areas of the state with a high Black population, into three districts that would all be represented by Republicans, Cooper said. 

Taken with other decisions, such as drawing the strongly Democratic Granville County into a competitive district that may lean Republican at the state House level, Cooper said the maps consistently favor Republicans and disfavor Democrats. 

The legislative defendants had time to call one witness before proceedings closed on Tuesday.

That expert, N.C. State University political science professor Andrew Taylor, compared North Carolina’s Constitution with that of other states. Compared across the country, North Carolina has among the fewest restrictions on the legislature’s power to draw political maps, he said. 

The plaintiffs are collectively pointing to four state constitutional provisions that they argue should block extreme partisan gerrymandering. State law is unsettled about whether they can apply to partisan interest in redistricting. 

“I find that there’s no real historical association between redistricting and those four provisions of the North Carolina State Constitution — free elections, freedom of assembly, the freedom of speech and equal protection clauses,” Taylor said. 

The state courts, which have not heard these legal arguments before, will have to decide whether these provisions apply now, with massive consequences for state and federal politics.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.