North Carolina is unlikely to have new congressional districts this year, even though they are so gerrymandered in Republicans’ favor that a federal court ruled this week they violate the U.S. Constitution. It was the second time this year the court reached that conclusion.
The chances that the districts would get redrawn before the Nov. 6 election dropped significantly Friday after those who had challenged the map told the federal court in a brief it would be a bad idea to try to set new districts ahead of the midterms.
The challengers ― Common Cause, the League of Women Voters and the North Carolina Democratic Party ― said imposing new districts would “be too disruptive and potentially counterproductive” because the election was so close. Earlier this week, a panel of three federal judges in North Carolina left open the possibility of quickly drawing new districts after finding the current plan violated Article I of the U.S. Constitution as well as the First and 14th Amendments.
Republicans have controlled 10 of the state’s 13 congressional districts since 2012, and the briefing from the plaintiffs makes it very likely they will maintain an extremely favorable map for November’s vote. Republican legislative leaders had already vowed to appeal the ruling and said it would be impossible to create new districts this year.
In their brief, the plaintiffs said that ordering the new districts would cause chaos in the state and would be contrary to their mission of good government. They asked the court to appoint a “special master” to draw new districts that would be used in the 2020 elections.
“Plaintiffs have reluctantly concluded that, under these very unique circumstances, it will be too disruptive — and counterproductive to the organizational plaintiffs’ respective missions — to impose a remedial plan in time for the 2018 election, now little more than two months away,” they wrote.
Even though there is currently a 4-4 split among the liberal and conservative justices on the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs said they could not be sure the high court wouldn’t step in and overturn the panel’s ruling, which would create even more confusion in the state. The plaintiffs also noted there was considerable confusion in the state as Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and Republican leaders battle over the wording of constitutional amendments and whether they will appear on the ballot this fall.
“Plaintiffs still strongly believe — and have always maintained — that every election conducted under an unconstitutional plan visits irreparable harm on voters,” they wrote. “That said, given these unique facts, plaintiffs have concluded that a statewide redistricting just weeks before Election Day would not be a good-government solution.”
The likely survival of the districts underscores just how potent a weapon gerrymandering has been for Republicans throughout the decade. As courts have wrestled with figuring out how to judge the constitutionality of partisan gerrymanders, Republicans have consistently been elected under maps that give them a considerable advantage. The policies lawmakers elected under those maps enact will last long after new districts are put in place.
“Unfortunately, the General Assembly’s decision to draw a biased and gerrymandered map in 2016 allowed them to run out the clock and force North Carolinians to vote in unconstitutional districts one more time,” Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, said in a statement. The case is expected to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Phillips vowed his group would continue its fight there.
The court had suggested North Carolina could modify its elections to hold primary contests before the new Congress is seated or to eliminate primaries altogether. The plaintiffs objected to both ideas, saying it would not serve voters well.
“Holding elections at non-standard times tends to depress turnout, particularly of young and minority voters,” they wrote. “And while potentially lower turnout, standing alone, is not a reason to delay implementing a remedy for a constitutional violation, because these populations tend to support the Democratic Party, it is entirely possible that this proposal would actually hurt, rather than help, the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party.”
Hurting Democrats, they wrote, is “exactly what the Legislative Defendants sought to do through the unconstitutional 2016 Plan.”