Earlier this year, the Supreme Court issued a surprise ruling that the Voting Rights Act does, in fact, still safeguard against racial gerrymandering. That’s already had a profound impact in the South, as Alabama and Georgia have now been ordered to redraw their congressional maps before the 2024 election.
And then there’s North Carolina.
North Carolina Republicans are probably the nation’s most dedicated gerrymanderers. They haven’t always been the most successful in the long term, but they’ve always been ready to bounce back and try again. And with a new congressional map approved last Wednesday, they may have actually found a map that will stick — and potentially decide control of the U.S. House of Representatives next year.
North Carolina Republicans are probably the nation’s most dedicated gerrymanderers.
Last year, ahead of the midterms, the state Supreme Court struck down a map that would have benefitted Republicans. The redrawn map resulted in the North Carolina delegation being evenly split between 7 Democrats and 7 Republicans. That division makes sense given that statewide elections tend to be decided by just 2 or 3 points. It’s truly wild then that the new map makes it more likely that the delegation will come out of next year’s elections with an 11-3 split in Republicans’ favor.
But since the previous maps were struck down, the North Carolina state Supreme Court flipped last year to a Republican majority and almost immediately ruled that the court has no jurisdiction when it comes to partisan gerrymandering. The GOP-controlled Legislature wasted no time in cobbling together a new set of maps that blatantly favor Republicans, break apart districts in major cities and leaves only one congressional district as a true battleground — but even that one leans Republican and is currently held by a Democrat. (Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, doesn’t have the power to veto the Legislature’s redistricting efforts.)
“It’s a 50-50 state,” Rep. Wiley Nickel, D-N.C., a first-term congressman whose district was eliminated, told Politico. “Seventy-nine percent of the seats for Republicans in a 50-50 state. It’s just wrong.”
The recent federal court rulings in Alabama and Georgia were based on the idea that there were not enough majority Black districts at the state and congressional level based on the demographics at hand. Alabama has been ordered to draw at least one more majority Black congressional district, while Georgia’s redrawn maps will likely add at least one more Democrat-friendly congressional seat and potentially revamp the state Legislature as well. But that means that North Carolina Democrats will need to prove racial bias in the new map, rather than just a partisan one.
Given Republicans’ track record in the state, that may sound like a relatively easy task. Time after time, voter suppression efforts in North Carolina have been ruled to be obvious attempts to dilute Black votes. State voter ID laws were struck down in 2016 and 2021. A federal appeals court in the former case scoffed at the claim that the goal was preventing voter fraud: “Although the new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision, they constitute inapt remedies for the problems assertedly justifying them and, in fact, impose cures for problems that did not exist.”
Rather than reconsider their actions, North Carolina Republicans made it easier to obscure their motives.
But rather than reconsider their actions, North Carolina Republicans made it easier to obscure their motives. A provision in this year’s state budget completely repealed a portion of state law that required draft maps and communication surrounding the redistricting process to be made public, The News & Observer reported. In doing so, Republican lawmakers effectively shielded themselves from whatever lawsuits will be filed to challenge the newly passed maps. Even before that, state lawmakers had shown themselves willing to use, and then destroy, secret draft maps to help guide their decisions in the hopes of avoiding scrutiny.
If North Carolina Republicans pull this off, they’ll be an outlier in a country where gerrymanders are becoming less influential. Researchers found that last year’s midterms were basically a wash when it came to partisan gerrymandering, helping keep the Republican majority in the House to a slim four seats. But four more guaranteed seats for Republicans in North Carolina could help stem any losses they take as more racially balanced maps are put into place elsewhere.
More worryingly is the prospect that North Carolina’s newly secretive process could become a template for other GOP-dominated states looking to consolidate power without judicial scrutiny. The Supreme Court has already shown that it’s willing to look the other way if a gerrymander can be excused away as merely partisan, instead of racist. If and when these new maps make it before the high court, the real question will be how well the North Carolina GOP has learned to cover their tracks.
Hayes Brown is a writer and editor for MSNBC Daily, where he helps frame the news of the day for readers. He was previously at BuzzFeed News and holds a degree in international relations from Michigan State University.