As the Biden administration and Congress struggle with plummeting approval numbers, a battle is being waged in North Carolina and other states over who will control the drawing of congressional districts. The 2022 elections could turn the balance of power to Republicans in Congress.
The latest Cygnal poll shows 51% of likely voters surveyed said they prefer a Republican candidate for Congress as a check against the Biden administration, while 40% would prefer a Democrat to support Biden’s agenda. Combine those numbers with a 2020 census that gave North Carolina an extra congressional seat and new maps, and the stakes get high.
Consequently, on Feb. 2 the N.C. Supreme Court, with a 4-3 Democrat majority, was set to hear arguments over the state’s electoral maps approved by a Republican-led legislature. Lawsuits over the maps were filed before they were even passed by the state legislature, and the plaintiffs are familiar — Common Cause N.C. and the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, with financing from some of the highest levels in the Democrats’ political apparatus.
The food chain
At the top of the food chain sits the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, run by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Upon leaving office in 2015, Holder committed to turning his focus to states’ congressional district maps in the next phase of his career. That organization spawned several others, including the National Redistricting Action Fund, the National Redistricting Foundation, and All on The Line, a series of state-level groups that use social media to train speakers and potential witnesses on how to oppose congressional maps in courtrooms and public hearings.
Key plaintiffs in the election lawsuits w/ annual revenues
Lawsuit bankrollers and direction of funds
In 2019, the National Redistricting Fund merged with a political project of former president Barack Obama called Organizing for America to launch “Redistricting U” and All On The Line.
AOTL’s state director said in a training session that it was designed to put on the record speakers whose testimony would “be impactful during any future litigation.” An analysis of speakers at the legislature’s redistricting hearings held across the state found that of the 464 speakers, 324 were either from AOTL or partisan groups with a vested political interest. Plaintiffs used their testimony to argue that lawmakers had disregarded “public opinion.”
In its first news conference, the NDRC openly shared its discussions with Democrat House members on how the group will work through shaping state maps to create more seats for their political party. The Holder-led organization has been a “max-out” donor, $5,400, to more than 50 Democrat candidates for N.C. offices from state Senate and House to the judiciary. That last category includes the Earls for Justice campaign to support Anita Earls, an associate justice on the N.C. Supreme Court.
“Fixing this redistricting problem will involve not just focusing on the lines but focusing on the larger effort to win back governance,” Holder said in 2017. “This is the path to ensuring Democrats have their rightful seats at the table in 2021.”
The NDRC has contributed significant resources to aid lawsuits by North Carolina’s current plaintiffs, but other groups have chipped in, as well. The Tide Foundation of California and the Proteus Fund of Massachusetts, who are big beneficiaries of George Soros’ the Open Society Institute, have given thousands to the primary plaintiffs.
While this isn’t the first time Common Cause N.C. and other plaintiffs have sued over the state maps, this time well over $15 million has come from political players at the state and national level to affect the new district maps.
“This is clearly a long-term game plan for the Democratic Party and their allies,” says Jim Stirling, research fellow at the John Locke Foundation’s Civitas Center for Public Integrity. “If we look back to the 2013 Blueprint N.C. brief, they lay out their plan to retake the legislature very clearly. They called for their members to ‘eviscerate, mitigate, litigate, cogitate, and agitate’ state legislative leadership,”
The Blueprint N.C. strategy in 2013 was underwritten by left-leaning funders that include the Common Cause Education Fund and Z. Smith Reynolds, which also awarded a $50,000 grant to the National Redistricting Foundation, labeling it “Fighting for Fairer Maps in North Carolina Project.”
“The most shocking part for me has been just how many of these lawsuits against the General Assembly are being handled by the same legal institutions and lawyers,” Stirling added. “The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, Arnold, and Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, and Patterson Harkavy show up throughout a large majority of these suits against the General Assembly.”
In following the money trail, much of it seems to pass through Common Cause N.C. from its parent organization, Washington, D.C.-based Common Cause and its Common Cause Education Fund. All state and federal donors listed above contribute to the education fund, which in part passes it on to Common Cause N.C.
A nationwide effort
North Carolina is not alone. The National Redistricting Action Fund, a 501c4, and the National Redistricting Foundation, a 501c3, are supporting litigation this year against electoral maps in North Carolina, Minnesota, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Alabama.
Except Colorado, all those states are run by a Republican legislative majority. In most of those cases, the plaintiffs are asking that the courts intervene and either draw new maps themselves or hire a “special master” to redraw the maps. Colorado already has a special redistricting commission drawing its maps because voters approved the commission’s formation through a ballot initiative in 2018. There, the NRAF is opposing the commission-approved maps, saying they undercut minority influence.
Largely considered the mastermind of the Democrats’ “Lawsuit Industrial Complex,” attorney Marc Elias and his law firm are engaged in most of these cases. Hillary Clinton’s former campaign lawyer, Elias is best known for his role in acquiring the infamous Steele dossier in 2016 and for suing to get the 2008 Minnesota Senate recount that pushed now disgraced Al Franken into office and gave Democrats the votes they needed to pass the Affordable Care Act. Since then, Elias has focused his lawsuit lens on what he calls “grotesque gerrymandering” in states’ congressional maps … except in Maryland.
In January, Elias drew criticism for filing a motion on behalf of defendants in a lawsuit over Maryland’s maps. The group Fair Maps Maryland is suing the Democrat-led legislature over the Democrat-drawn state congressional map. Critics say the map is designed to elect Democrats to all eight congressional districts. Republicans hold one Maryland seat in the U.S. House today.
“This is really indicative as the kind of games that are being played,” Mayer said in an interview with Carolina Journal. “Marc Elias likes to portray himself as a defender of democracy. Listen, I’m a Republican operative in my day job, and Marc Elias is a Democrat operative. That’s all this is about.”
“We actually looked at the case that Marc Elias was bringing in North Carolina to build some of the legal arguments in our case [against Maryland’s maps],” Mayer added. “The idea that he is now going to be on the other side, defending gerrymandering in Maryland, was too rich of an opportunity to pass up.”
Ad campaigns mix with legal action
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project graded Maryland’s 8-0 Democrat maps an “F” for a “significant Democrat advantage.” The Princeton Project also gave North Carolina an “F” for “significant Republican advantage.” The Princeton group developed criteria for grading maps, with assistance from a group called “RepresentUs,” which bills itself as a nonpartisan peacemaker carrying the tag line “We’re Saving Democracy. Join us.”
RepresentUs received a $25,000 grant from the National Redistricting Action Fund in 2018. It also helped develop the map-grading criteria and grade the state’s maps, which N.C. plaintiffs, the League of Conservation Voters, used to request that the N.C. Supreme Court intervene to strike down N.C. maps.
Now, as the court and lawyers were preparing for the Feb. 2 oral arguments, RepresentUs is running a social media campaign on Facebook and local Raleigh news websites urging Supreme Court justices to overturn the maps.
“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,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause N.C.. “We look forward to taking our case to the state Supreme Court. We are confident that the people of North Carolina will ultimately prevail in our fight for fair maps.”
These funders have also helped lawsuits in overturning voter ID. In 2018, 57% percent of North Carolinians voted to add a voter ID requirement to the state constitution. That amendment has not been enacted because it has been tied up in court by lawsuits initially filed by the N.C. NAACP and Clean Air Carolina.
Using the legal system to overturn the policy of the opposing party is not new. Common Cause N.C. has been fighting state districts since 2011, when Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time in a century. But the number of lawsuits has exploded in recent years, in some ways contributing to political polarization.
“It’s very understandable for many voters to be frustrated right now with the overt partisan leanings of various groups,” said Stirling. “However, I don’t believe there has ever been an organization in modern history that hasn’t had some small partisan leaning to it. The best way to combat this is more information rather than ignoring it entirely. Researching who is funding these organizations, where their C-suite members have worked prior to their current positions will tell you what the beliefs of many of these groups are.”