North Carolina Republicans have spent the last eight years ruthlessly undermining democracy in their state. The key to their extraordinary success is a series of partisan gerrymanders that dilute the power of Democrats’ vote, allowing the GOP to maintain a firm grasp on the state legislature. But Republicans failed to subvert the one institution capable of reversing this damage to fair representation: the state judiciary. Now voting rights advocates are poised to score a legal victory in North Carolina that could wipe out the GOP’s legislative gerrymander—with the help of civil rights attorney Anita Earls, who was elected to the state Supreme Court last week. The case could give Democrats a real shot at retaking the legislature in 2020, or at least contesting it on an even playing field.
Prior to the 2010 election, the Republican State Leadership Committee created Project REDMAP, a two-part plan to implement gerrymanders in purple states following the 2010 census. North Carolina, a traditionally moderate and bipartisan state, was a main target. First, the RSLC, aided by conservative mega-donor Art Pope, funneled money into legislative races to swing control of the General Assembly. It worked: In 2010, Republicans seized control of both the North Carolina House and Senate for the first time since 1870.
Next, Republican legislators worked with a team of GOP operatives and redistricting experts led by Tom Hofeller, the party’s chief gerrymander strategist. Holed up in GOP headquarters, using computers owned by the Republican National Committee and software licensed by the Republican Party, this group drew maps designed to entrench Republicans’ legislative power. (The public was not permitted to observe the process, though Pope was.) Hofeller later acknowledged that the plans were “designed to ensure Republican majorities in the House and Senate.”
Republican legislators then voted to approve the maps over unanimous Democratic dissent.* They worked as intended. Over the next three elections, Republicans won only a slim majority of votes statewide—yet secured a supermajority of seats in the House and Senate. After voters replaced Republican Gov. Pat McCrory with Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016, GOP legislators used their supermajority to strip Cooper of executive authority and further curtail voting rights.
In November 2016, however, a federal court found that 28 legislative seats constituted a racial gerrymander in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and ordered them re-drawn. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that decision in 2017. Republicans promptly attempted to replace this racial gerrymander with a partisan one, once again hiring Hofeller for the job. Hofeller used election data as a decisive criterion and produced a new map that flagrantly favored Republicans. Rep. David Lewis, who oversaw the committee in charge of the maps, explained his redistricting philosophy this way: “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.”
Voting rights advocates sued again, alleging that four of the new districts were still racially gerrymandered. The federal court agreed and ordered those districts—but only those districts—re-drawn. Today, this map remains in place, maximizing a GOP advantage across the state. It mostly held fast in the 2018 election, in which Democrats broke Republicans’ supermajority but failed to come close to taking control of either chamber.