Judges: North Carolina Lawmakers Gerrymandered, but There’s Nothing We Can Do About It

FILE - In this Monday, July 15, 2019 file photo, a state districts map is shown as a three-judge panel of the Wake County Superior Court presides over the trial of Common Cause, et al. v. Lewis, et al, in Raleigh, N.C. North Carolina has often been cited as an example of political gerrymandering. Now court rulings against its legislative and congressional districts also could become an example for other states. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

By Michael McElroy

January 11, 2022

But good government groups and voting rights advocates say they’re confident the NC Supreme Court will strike down the GOP’s tilted voting maps.

North Carolina lawmakers gerrymandered, a panel of judges ruled Tuesday, but that doesn’t mean their tilted voting maps are unconstitutional. 

The ruling from the state Superior Court judges puts the maps on track to be used in the May primary elections.

But the plaintiffs in the suit are expected to appeal the ruling, which would move the case to the state Supreme Court. So hang on, folks; the story’s not over yet. 

“Our trial presented overwhelming evidence that the legislature engaged in extreme gerrymandering that would undermine free and fair elections in North Carolina,” Bob Phillips, the executive director of good government group Common Cause North Carolina, said in a news release. Phillips said that he was confident the NC Supreme Court would reverse the ruling.

“If allowed to stand, these extreme gerrymanders would cause profound and lasting harm to the people of our state, especially hurting Black communities, by depriving voters of a voice in choosing their representatives,” Phillips said. 

The maps at issue were drawn last year by the Republican-controlled General Assembly, and faced several lawsuits soon after they were formally adopted. Independent analysis of the maps, elections experts say, show that Republicans would have a partisan advantage under the new maps much larger than the state’s racial and partisan demographics can explain. 

The maps, for example, would give Republican candidates an uncontested path to 10 of the 14 NC House seats, even though the state has more registered Democrats than Republicans, has elected a Democratic governor two terms in a row, and had a far closer split among Trump voters and Biden voters in the 2020 elections. (Trump won by less than two percentage points.)

The new districts would also split several areas with a large number of Black voters, spreading their number in smaller chunks over more districts, making it more difficult for them to elect the representatives of their choice.

Experts for the plaintiffs testified to all this in the trial, and the judges seemed to have accepted this argument as valid. 

“The Court finds,” the judges wrote in their ruling, “that the Congressional map is the product of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting. The enacted map sticks at 4 Democrats and 10 Republicans despite large shifts in the statewide vote fraction across a wide variety of elections, in elections where no nonpartisan map would elect as few as 4 Democrats and many would elect 7 or 8.” The judges agreed that the map was “an extreme outlier,” quoting one of the experts.

But, the judges ruled, because the General Assembly didn’t break any state laws, there was nothing the court could do. 

If the NC Supreme Court upholds the judges’ ruling, the maps would be valid until the next census in 2030. 

What Does the Ruling Say?

In their 260 page-ruling, Judges Graham Shirley (Republican, Wake Co.), Nathaniel Poovey (Republican, Catawba Co.,) and Dawn Layton (Democrat, Anson Co.) seemed to distance themselves at first from the maps, even as they ruled they were constitutional.

“Sometimes, courts are required to make decisions that are not popular,” the judges wrote in the first few paragraphs. “Judges, just like many of the citizens they serve, do not always like the results they reach.” 

But the judges said they found no evidence that the General Assembly violated state law in how they drew the maps. 

Plaintiffs argued, for example, that the maps were unconstitutional in part because they did not conduct an analysis to see how the new districts would affect voters of color, as per the US Voting Rights Act. (VRA) The court ruled, however, that there were no such requirements in legal precedent, even if they hinted that it would have been better if the General Assembly had done such a study. 

“Whether the decision to rely on prior experience rather than an expert analysis was prudent or wise,” the judges wrote, “that is not for the Court to decide and would impermissibly intrude on the internal decision-making processes of the Legislature. The fact is, whether correct or not, the Legislative Defendants made a decision that no VRA Districts are required.”

Lawyers for the General Assembly applauded the ruling.

State law gives sole authority over the maps process to the General Assembly, and the governor has no veto power. This, the GA’s lawyers argued at trial, means that the courts did not have any standing to get involved at all. 

How Did We Get Here?

The Superior Court’s ruling is the latest battle in a long fight over election maps in North Carolina, which has not had a constitutionally drawn map in a decade.

Maps drawn by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly were rejected by federal courts or the Justice Department several times between 1991 and 1997. When Republicans gained control of the state legislature in 2010, their new maps were eventually ruled unconstitutional as well. 

The court processes in such cases are often complicated and can take years to resolve. 

But at the crux of the plaintiffs’ suits was the definition between redistricting and gerrymandering. 

Redistricting is the legal and required process of reallocating district seats every 10 years to align with any population changes. It is a necessary procedure to ensure that the state’s elected officials truly reflect the citizens they represent.

But gerrymandering is the term for when elected officials warp this necessary process to give unfair advantage to their political party, in essence drawing the districts in a way that ensures an official’s victory rather than reflects the true demographics of the people.

This is exactly what the Republican legislature did, the plaintiffs said.

The NAACP, and Common Cause NC, a nonpartisan good-government and voting rights group,  were among the plaintiffs in three separate lawsuits over the final maps and the process used to create them. 

Jowei Chen, a political science professor at the University of Michigan who studied the maps and testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, said that the resultant maps can only be explained by intentional gerrymandering. 

The maps create “a level of Republican bias that cannot be explained by North Carolina’s political geography or by the General Assembly’s August adopted criteria,” Chen told the court. 

The January trial came after a flurry of rulings in December.

Last month the NC Supreme Court combined the three separate lawsuits into one; fast-tracked the trial in front of the state Superior Court so that a ruling could be rendered in time for the primary elections this year; pushed back the primaries from March to May; and froze the process for potential candidates to file. 

As Carolina Public Press and others have pointed out, the political makeup of the state’s courts made the outcomes so far relatively easy to predict. 

The trio of Superior Court judges hearing this case, two Republicans and a Democrat, ruled in a preliminary hearing in December that the court had no power to rule against the General Assembly’s maps. Like a prologue to today, the plaintiffs appealed that decision to the State Supreme Court—four Democrats, three Republicans—which overruled the lower court’s ruling.


  • Michael McElroy

    Michael McElroy is Cardinal & Pine's political correspondent. He is an adjunct instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and a former editor at The New York Times.

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