RALEIGH — Another legal challenge was filed Thursday to boundaries for North Carolina’s congressional seats drawn by Republicans who control the state legislature, with the plaintiffs again arguing politics played too great a role in drawing the lines.
But authors of the new litigation offer a little something more — a method to measure excessive partisanship, one that courts could use going forward.
Similar allegations of illegal partisan gerrymandering surfaced in a federal lawsuit filed last month by the national election reform group Common Cause, the state Democratic Party and voters. Both lawsuits focus on comments and actions taken by Republican lawmakers last February when they were ordered to redraw the boundaries because federal judges ruled two majority-black districts were racial gerrymanders.
The lawsuits want the updated map thrown out and replaced, although it’s too late for it to happen before the November’s elections.
The new map didn’t consider race, redistricting leaders said, and was designed so Republicans could retain their previous 10-3 seat advantage in the state’s congressional delegation. Democrats comprise 40 percent of registered voters, with the remaining number of registrants essentially split as Republicans and unaffiliated, save for a few Libertarians.
“It’s clear that the intent and effect of creating North Carolina’s 2016 congressional maps were to manipulate the democratic process,” said Anita Earls, an attorney with the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice who represents the League of Women Voters of North Carolina and Democratic voters in Thursday’s lawsuit. Lawyers for the Campaign Legal Center in Washington also are handling the case.
The lawsuit names General Assembly leaders, lawmakers who drew the map and the State Board of Elections as defendants. The map’s defenders have said previously it’s not an illegal partisan gerrymander because Republicans must rely on unaffiliated and Democratic voters to win North Carolina elections.
“No matter how many costly and duplicative lawsuits special-interest groups continue to file against our congressional map, it doesn’t change the fact that it splits fewer counties and fewer precincts than any map in modern state history — it just may not elect enough Democrats for their liking,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the map’s authors, said in a statement.
U.S. Supreme Court justices have expressed concern over the excessive use of politics in drawing maps, but maps have not been declared illegal on that basis.
That’s in part because there hasn’t been a workable standard to calculate when partisanship is excessive, according to Thursday’s lawsuit, which like last month’s lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Greensboro.
The plaintiffs offer a three-pronged test to determine whether district maps cross that line, based on the premise that the percentage of overall votes a party’s candidates receive shouldn’t be out of whack with the percentage of seats to which they are elected. Those percentages can be unbalanced by boundary shifts that either spread thinly voters of one party across several districts or by packing them in one district, which help the controlling party more seats.
Based on calculations looking at maps since the early 1970s, the lawsuit says, the current congressional map is “by any measure, one of the worst partisan gerrymanders in modern American history.”
At least four other lawsuits have been filed since 2011 challenging North Carolina congressional and legislative districts drawn by Republicans. A panel of federal judges last month struck down nearly 30 General Assembly districts as racial gerrymanders. The U.S. Supreme Court has said it will review the racial gerrymander case involving the previous congressional districts.