North Carolina lawmakers have just nine days to draw new voter district maps. They’re off to a rough start. 

A three-judge panel on Sept. 3 told Republican lawmakers to throw out their state legislative maps — which were subject to “extreme partisan gerrymandering”— and start over. House and Senate majority leaders aren’t happy with the court’s decision in Common Cause v. Lewis, yet still say they’ll comply with the law. But Monday, Sept. 9 — after hitting a speed bump that raised questions about court violations — Republican leaders left the building without accomplishing much.  

Debate about ground rules stalled progress while Republicans worked under the court’s map-drawing orders. Lawmakers aren’t allowed to use partisan data to “pack and crack” constituents into districts that benefit the majority party. They’re not allowed to use the old maps as a starting point for new districts. They’re not allowed to hire outside help without the court’s permission. 

And they have to finish by Sept. 18.

Because the court disqualified existing maps as a base for new districts, Republicans proposed that lawmakers use model maps — drawn by redistricting expert Jowei Chen — as their canvas. Chen, a University of Michigan political scientist, was an expert witness for plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis. Republicans will use Chen’s maps as a starting point, thus complying with the court, majority leaders from both chambers said.  

The announcement was a curveball for Democrats, who argued the maps required more analysis. It also put Democrats in the unusual position of arguing against maps approved in a court decision they initially applauded.

“Did we ever think about starting from scratch?” Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, said during committee. 

We don’t have enough time, Republicans answered, again and again. 

But, with the clock ticking, lawmakers hit another snag around 5:30 p.m., when Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, noted problems with data sets sent to House members, and to the General Assembly’s Legislative Analysis Division. 

An initial report from the progressive news outlet Policy Watch said lawyers from Ogletree Deakins — the law firm representing Republican leaders — sent partisan data to House committee members and legislative staffers. Since the court order prohibits lawmakers from using such data in its mapmaking, concerns of violation were floated.

Carolina Journal later confirmed with sources with knowledge of the process that Ogletree Deakins sent an email with data to lawmakers after getting a request from the Legislative Analysis Division. The type of data was unclear, but lawyers from the firm maintained in emails that the court’s order was not violated, sources said. 

We are deeply concerned that the Democrats’ lawyers’ objections are a ruse, as the Democrats claimed in open Committee that they can use partisanship for redistricting, but Republicans cannot,” Lewis told CJ late Monday. “The General Assembly intended on inputting Dr. Chen’s simulated map data in exactly the same format as it was given to us by the plaintiffs. Those plans have been shelved based on Plaintiffs’ objections.”

“No criteria for judging maps by the Committee has or will include partisanship,” Lewis said. “To expedite the adoption of a plan, we are seeing if plaintiffs can remove any objectionable data from Dr. Chen’s data/reports or if they have an alternative approach.”

Republicans are worried that Democrats may try to manipulate the process behind the scenes, Lewis added.

“Everyone needs to take a deep breath,” said former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr.

Simply having partisan data, or looking at partisan data, isn’t a violation, he told CJ. The court told lawmakers to make maps without the data. As long as legislative staffers are drawing districts with an algorithm that doesn’t include political information, Republicans are in compliance. 

“I wouldn’t inherently think something was wrong because political data was given to the redistricting committee,” Orr said. “Everybody needs to back off and get the map drawing underway.”

That’s not impossible, but lawmakers are facing a tight deadline. Differences in opinion and approach also gummed up Monday’s proceedings.

While House members argued over amendments in their committee, Senate members wanted to streamline the process, and appointed Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, and Sen. Dan. Blue, D-Wake, as bipartisan arbitrators. 

The whole process is complicated by the court’s transparency requirements, Lewis said to the committee. The public should be able to observe all parts of the legislature’s map-drawing, the order states. 

“It comes down to the old saying about having to ‘Watch the sausage being made,’” Lewis said.

Going forward, the legislature will live stream video of committees, Lewis said. Democrats had asked the majority to schedule public hearings, possibly outside Raleigh. Again, GOP leaders said there wasn’t enough time.