Ruling in N.C. case throws election into confusion

Chris Satullo| September 1st, 2018

Pennsylvania can relate.

North Carolina’s coming general election got hurtled into chaos and confusion recently, thanks to a federal appeals court action. 

A three-judge panel affirmed its previous ruling that the state’s congressional map was so blatantly partisan it was unconstitutional.

The judges concluded it would harm the state’s voters to hold another election under such a flawed map.  The judges wanted the map redrawn before this year’s midterm congressional elections get held in the Tar Heel state.

At the end of August, however, the plaintiffs who won the case said they’d “reluctantly concluded” that not enough time remains to redraw the lines properly before the November election.  That leaves up in the air the question of what happens to the old map, and when.

Pennsylvanians lived through a similar fire drill in winter 2018, when the state’s Supreme Court tossed out the state’s congressional map, saying it violated the state constitution.  An outside expert hired by the court drew a new map, which was then hustled into action for the May primary.

The North Carolina map is actually a redo of a map originally done in 2011.  The court also tossed that one, calling it a blatantly racist gerrymander.

The Republicans who ran the state Capitol didn’t try to disguise what they were up in the redraw.

“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” Republican state Rep. David Lewis said in public session.  “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

He added: “I propose that we draw the maps 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.”

The U.S. Supreme Court had asked the federal Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which has handled the North Carolina case, to re-examine its original ruling tossing out Lewis' preferred map.  The purpose was to see how the North Carolina ruling aligned with the high court’s opinion in the recent, closely watched case of Gill v. Whitford, out of Wisconsin.  The high court didn't fully decide Gill, instead sending it back to the lower court with instructions for reconsidering it.

Gerrymandering foes had hoped Gill would lead the high court to provide a clear standard for identifying when partisan gerrymandering goes too far.    They didn't get their wish.  The Gill v. Whitford ruling seems to have added confusion, not clarity, to the debate.  

Despite all that, in reviewing Gill, the appeals court panel concluded the Wisconsin case did nothing to undercut its ruling on North Carolina.

Though the political backdrop and legal arguments in the North Carolina and Pennsylvania cases have some similarities, there is one big, vital difference.

Because it was filed in state court and rooted in provisions of the state constitution, Pennsylvania’s landmark redistricting ruling was not subject to appeal to the federal courts.  Republicans in the General Assembly have tried to get the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, but the high court has so far declined.