A three-judge panel on Tuesday struck down North Carolina’s congressional map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, giving the state legislature only two weeks to adopt a new map and potentially throwing this year’s elections into chaos.
In a unanimous decision, the panel said that if the General Assembly fails to enact a new map by Jan. 24, a special master will be appointed to draw the districts.
If the decision stands, it would be the second time the state was forced to redraw its congressional map this decade. The last redraw was in 2016, after a previous version was ruled unconstitutional for illegally using race to draw two seats.
But in this new decision, the panel ruled that the remedial map violated the equal protection clause when GOP legislative leaders drew the maps with an explicit conservative bias in an effort to favor Republican candidates. “Rather than seeking to advance any democratic or constitutional interest, the state legislator responsible for drawing the 2016 Plan said he drew the map to advantage Republican candidates because he ‘think[s] electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,'” Circuit Court Judge James Wynn wrote in the ruling.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported Tuesday night that Republican legislative leaders plan to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.
The state’s congressional delegation is made up of 10 Republicans and three Democrats, even though recent statewide elections often reflect a nearly 50-50 split. In 2016, Republicans won the presidential race by 4 percentage points and the state’s Senate race by 6 points — while Democrats carried the governor’s race by less than 1 point.
State Rep. David Lewis, a Republican who led the redrawing process, said in 2016 that he proposed “we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
The Supreme Court hasn’t yet delivered guidance on how states can or can’t use partisan gerrymandering, but a similar case out of Wisconsin — Gill v. Whitford — is currently pending before them.
If the districts do need to be redrawn, legislators and the court will have little time to do it. The candidate filing deadline is Feb. 28, with the primary election set for May 8.
Democrats, meanwhile, believe that the panel’s ruling opens up big opportunities, as the party hopes to chip away at their 24-seat deficit in the House.
“If we end up with new districts and a new map for this year, along with the wave that’s coming, then Democrats have ripe opportunities to pick up three, four or five seats here alone,” said Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist in the state.