Originally posted in The New York Times on June 28, 2019.
ASHEVILLE, N.C. — For most of this decade, North Carolina Democrats have complained that the Republican-led legislature has aggressively altered the state’s voting rules and redrawn electoral maps to secure an overwhelming partisan advantage.
On Thursday, the United States Supreme Court said it couldn’t do anything about it.
The decision by the justices not to intervene in even the most blatant partisan gerrymanders was a letdown to many liberals in this evenly divided purple state, where substantive policy battles often feel overshadowed by knife-fighting over the rules that govern democracy itself.
“Everybody realizes it’s a problem, and what it’s doing to our Congress and state legislatures,” Darren Jackson, the Democratic leader in the North Carolina House, said of partisan gerrymandering.
Thursday’s 5-4 ruling means that North Carolina’s current Republican-drawn map delineating its 13 Congressional districts — a map that critics have said is among the country’s most egregious examples of hyper-partisanship — will stand. The decision could also embolden lawmakers around the country to continue to push the envelope and craft seats for their respective parties with the aid of increasingly sophisticated computer mapping tools.
The high court’s decision does not preclude state lawmakers, or Congress, from taking action to reduce partisan gerrymandering. Civil rights lawyers on Thursday vowed to bring litigation in state courts to curb the practice under state constitutions, and a state-level lawsuit in North Carolina, expected to be heard later this summer, challenges Republican-drawn state legislative districts.
Lawmakers in North Carolina and other states may now also feel more pressure to follow the lead of states like Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah, which have set up independent redistricting commissions led by citizens in an effort to take map-drawing powers out of the hands of legislators altogether.
Those efforts are attempting to solve a question that has long bedeviled the courts: How to take the politics out of an inherently political process?
Former Gov. Pat McCrory of North Carolina, a Republican, said Thursday that he liked the idea of creating a nonpartisan map-drawing board. But he also wondered how nonpartisan such a body could ever truly be. “Who selects the nonpartisan committee?” he said. “Another nonpartisan committee? And then who selects them?”
Over the years, North Carolina has been consumed with numerous changes to political boundaries, legal challenges and associated vitriol. Democrats have accused Republicans of racism and drawing lines to minimize minority votes. And Republicans have accused Democrats — who effectively ran the state for decades — of hypocrisy, noting that they, too, actively engaged in gerrymandering once upon a time.
“Everyone’s against gerrymandering when they’re not the ones in power,” Mr. McCrory said.
The state’s current governor, Roy Cooper, said in a statement that the “battle is far from over,” noting that the fight against extreme partisan gerrymandering now moves to the courts and voters.
The state’s emergence in recent years as one of the most active battlegrounds in America’s voting wars stems to 2010, when Republicans gained control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in a century, giving them the power to redraw all manner of political maps.
There was a feeling then among Republicans that old wrongs needed to be righted, and that the state needed a firm rightward shove to bring it in line with the party’s wave that had overtaken much of the South. But they were met with fierce resistance from a liberal contingent that is one of the best organized in the region.
“They have been pursuing a very, very aggressive policy agenda that in some ways has kind of been like a lab experiment for what Trump has been pursuing on the national level,” said Rob Schofield, director of NC Policy Watch, a liberal group. “The gerrymandering has provided an environment where that lab experiment can continue to thrive, even though it is a divided purple state.”
Maps were drawn, rules were changed and lawsuits were filed, including challenges to a Republican-backed voter identification law and the constitutionality of Republican-drawn boundaries for federal, state and even local districts.
The law establishing a voter ID requirement and other restrictions on voting was struck down by a federal appeals court in 2016 on grounds that it targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.”
The federal courts then forced North Carolina Republicans to redraw portions of its Congressional map on grounds that parts of it constituted a racial gerrymander. In 2016, Republicans returned with a map that they explicitly claimed was created to disadvantage Democrats, rather than black people.
At one meeting, the Republican chairman of the state House Elections Committee, Representative David R. Lewis, said the maps would be drawn “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.”
In last year’s midterm elections, Democrats won 48.3 percent of the total vote in House races, and Republican candidates won 50.4 percent. But Democrats won only three of the 13 Congressional seats.
In a statement Thursday, Mr. Lewis praised the ruling for keeping the courts out of the redistricting process.
“Despite the millions of dollars spent by political activist organizations, the court issued a decision in our favor, determining that redistricting is the role of state legislatures, not the judicial branch,” he said.
For Asheville, a city that in recent decades has undergone a major liberal makeover, the sting of gerrymandering dates to 2011. Before that year’s Republican redistricting, much of its metro area had been lumped in the 11th District, which included city neighborhoods and more conservative rural areas to the west. The House seat had flopped from blue to red many times, and beginning in 2007, the district had been represented by Heath Shuler, a former N.F.L. quarterback who was a classic split-the-difference moderate Democrat.
But the redrawn map that year took a major liberal dollop of the 11th District and shoved it into the neighboring Republican-dominated 10th District. Mr. Shuler, sensing an uphill battle in his reconfigured district, decided in 2012 not to run again. And with liberals expertly divided between two districts, all of greater Asheville — a Southern city of cannabis-infused ice cream and multiday yoga festivals — found itself represented by two emphatic conservative Republicans and allies of President Trump: Mark Meadows in the 11th district and Patrick McHenry in the 10th.
Now progressive Asheville believes gerrymandering has locked its residents out of the Washington conversation.
“They will give lip service to listening to you, but you really know it’s a futile effort,” said Frank Goldsmith, a resident of Buncombe County, which includes Asheville, and member of the activist group Carolina Jews for Justice, referring to the Republican Congressmen.
Mayor Esther Manheimer, who, like the rest of the nonpartisan City Council, is a reliable liberal, said that while the local congressmen are easy to work with on nonpartisan items like infrastructure funding, there is a “disconnect” on other issues that Asheville residents are passionate about, like climate change and health care reform.
“I think that what happens is the electorate becomes disengaged,” she said. “They feel like the whole structure of the system is broken and doesn’t work for them, and they don’t trust in it.”
In 2017, the local League of Women Voters organized a 5 K run-walk along parts of the line between the 10th and 11th districts in an effort to underscore what the group saw as its ludicrous zigzags. Another section was found to bisect two dorms at the University of North Carolina Asheville, putting students living in the same hall in differing districts.
The redrawing did not end with Congressional districts: The Republican legislature has also changed or created the district lines for state House members, county commissioners and city council members. The legislature ordered a change to the Asheville City Council last year, converting an at-large system to one with five geographic districts, even though voters had rejected the idea three-to-one in an earlier referendum.
Jerry Green, chairman of the Buncombe County Republican Party, agreed with the state’s former governor, Mr. McCrory, that there was no mechanism that could truly cleanse the map-drawing process of politics. And he suggested that the future may only hold even more turmoil.
“One’s going to sue the other,” he said, “and we’re always going to have to deal with this.”