OPINION: Court Gerrymanders In The Name Of Stopping Gerrymandering

By Dr. Andy Jackson
John Locke Foundation

The trial court in the redistricting case North Carolina League of Conservation Voters v. Hall rejected a remedial congressional map drawn by the General Assembly based on recommendations from three “special masters” they appointed to inspect that map. The special masters claimed that the remedial map did not meet some theoretical mathematical thresholds, suggesting that the map might be a partisan gerrymander.

The special masters then used the authority given them by the court to replace it with a map that is a Democratic Party gerrymander.

Congressional map drawn by court-appointed special masters

The special masters’ N.C. congressional map. Source: N.C, General Assembly

Gerrymanders are not always apparent when looking at a map, but the special masters’ gerrymander is clearest when looking at two parts of the state. The first and most obvious is that they cleaved Charlotte in half, grafting one-half of the city to suburbs in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties and the other half to Gaston County. That move violated two basic redistricting principles by not creating a congressional district that is wholly contained in Mecklenburg County and by dividing clear communities of interest.

The special masters could have easily preserved communities of interest by drawing central Charlotte in one districting and linking suburban communities of Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, and Gaston Counties. In doing so, they would have created one safe Democratic district and one relatively competitive Democratic-leaning district. Instead, they made two safe Democratic districts by unnecessarily grafting urban and suburban areas in both districts.

State Senator Jeff Jackson (D-Mecklenburg) has already expressed interest in running in the new safely Democratic 14th District. Bob Orr, the so-called “unaffiliated” special master appointed by the trial court in the redistricting case, is a fan of Jackson’s. According to Federal Election Commission records, he donated to Jackson’s campaign committee in 2021. In recent years, the “unaffiliated” special master has also donated to other Democratic candidates such as Joe Biden and Dan McCready.

Partisan leanings of districts in special masters’ congressional map, based on a composite of ten statewide races in 2016 and 2020

Graphic illustrating partisan lean of N.C. congressional districts in special masters’ map. Source: John Locke Foundation.

The special masters also gerrymandered the Wake County districts. They split southeastern Raleigh from the rest of the city to put it in the 13th District. Splitting was unnecessary; the special masters could have easily kept Raleigh whole by adding rural and suburban eastern Wake County to the 13th.

So, what did the special masters accomplish by splitting off the predominantly black southeastern part of Raleigh from the rest of the city? By splitting that community of interest apart, they transformed the 13th District from Republican-leaning to Democratic-leaning.

The statewide result is a 7-7 split of congressional districts in typical elections. That result is out of touch with North Carolina’s political realities for two reasons. First, North Carolina is not a 50-50 state but leans slightly to the right. It is no accident that Republicans have won over 58% of statewide elections over the past decade. Also, Democratic voters tend to be concentrated while Republicans are more evenly spread across the state. Because of those two factors, the plaintiffs’ own expert witnesses in the redistricting case found that a map drawn using politically neutral redistricting criteria would most likely have a 9-5 or 8-6 Republican split.

The special masters and the court put their thumbs on the scale to favor Democrats.

N.C. voters. Photo by Maya Reagan, Carolina Journal

The special masters also reduced the number of competitive seats from four in the General Assembly’s remedial map to just two in the map they submitted to the court (one of them being the 13th). Why would they backslide on making districts that are responsive to voters? We can infer their intent by observing the effect of their unnecessary decisions.

Nearly all political observers expect the 2022 election to go well for Republicans, meaning that they will pick up most of the competitive seats in the county. By padding the number of safe Democratic seats and reducing the number of competitive seats, the special masters have used their power to draw maps to limit how many seats Republicans can win.

The special masters’ congressional map protects Democrats from a coming red wave. While the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld it for the 2022 election, the General Assembly will undoubtedly replace it before the 2024 election.

Dr. Andy Jackson is director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation.