Democrats claim that North Carolina’s newly redrawn electoral districts are gerrymandered to favor Republican candidates running for congressional or legislative seats.
That’s true, of course. GOP lawmakers admit as much. They argue that such partisan considerations are permitted by the federal and state constitutions.
That’s also true. The US Supreme Court has ruled that no language in the federal constitution can reasonably be construed to prohibit partisan gerrymandering, and that federal judges shouldn’t be in the business of “discovering” redistricting rules in the nebulous penumbras of free speech or free association.
Before 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court had a Democratic majority. It did rule that the state constitution contained actionable prohibitions against partisan gerrymandering — a ruling that was, itself, a partisan act. There were, in fact, no such prohibitions. They were invented by Democratic plaintiffs and activist judges. When Republicans won majorities on the court in 2022, they properly retracted this ruling.
That does not mean state courts have no proper jurisdiction over the drawing of electoral maps. North Carolina’s constitution does specifically require that legislative districts respect county lines as much as possible. Previously Democratic legislatures blithely ignored this rule, ruthlessly gerrymandering Republicans out of seats they might otherwise have won, because Democrats believed the state judiciary had no legitimate say over redistricting. They were wrong. Two decades ago, in the case of Stephenson v. Bartlett, the county line rule was reimposed — thanks to a Democratic trial judge and Republicans on the high court.
So, where does that leave us today?
Next year, candidates will run within the newly drawn congressional and legislative districts. Assuming the maps aren’t struck down by the federal courts — litigation is as inevitable as the change of seasons — Republicans will enjoy significant advantages.
According to my John Locke Foundation colleagues Andy Jackson and Jim Stirling, the congressional map features one safely Republican seat, eight likely Republican seats, and one leaning Republican seat. Of the remaining four seats, three are safely Democratic and one, the 1st District in the northeastern quadrant of the state, is a toss-up.
In the 50-member North Carolina Senate, there are 19 safely Republican, four likely Republican, and five leaning Republican seats. There are 16 safely Democratic seats and one likely Democratic. The remaining five seats are toss-ups.
In the 120-member North Carolina House, there are 39 safely Republican, 13 likely Republican, and 17 leaning Republican seats. There are 36 safely Democratic, six likely Democratic, and six leaning Democratic seats. The remaining three seats are toss-ups.
Speaking as a longtime advocate of competitive politics and redistricting reform, I dislike the new districts. The congressional maps split Mecklenburg, Wake, and Guilford counties among three different districts, which is unfair but, alas, not unconstitutional. The legislative maps do respect county lines but unnecessarily divide municipalities and in some cases meander within urban counties, placing partisan interest above compactness and competitiveness. Again, these are violations of best practice, but they aren’t unconstitutional.
As I have long argued, North Carolina’s constitution ought to contain such constraints. That would empower state courts to intervene against egregious gerrymandering, just as they did in the Stephenson case. But the only legitimate process for adding such constraints is for the legislature to propose, and the voters adopt, an amendment to the state constitution.
Obviously that isn’t going to happen in the short run. To preserve or expand their representation, Democrats will have to recruit and fund strong candidates with a chance of winning toss-up seats, plus those that lean or are even likely Republican (don’t discount their chances entirely — this is how Republicans won their legislative majorities in 2010). In the long run, however, a multipartisan coalition will have to convince lawmakers to submit a redistricting amendment to a statewide referendum. It will need to become effective in some future redistricting cycle, when neither party can be sure it will be in charge.
North Carolinians deserve more competitive elections. That’s the only way to make it happen.