The U.S. Supreme Court’s Jan. 18 decision to pause a nine-day-old federal court ruling against North Carolina’s congressional map was the latest turn in a legal war that has made the state’s electoral system the most chaotic in the U.S.
The temporary stay is part of a wider, national challenge to the kind of political gerrymandering that has helped breed hyperpartisanship across the country. The Supreme Court gave North Carolina a reprieve while it considers partisan gerrymandering cases in Wisconsin and Maryland, with decisions expected in May or June. In Pennsylvania the state Supreme Court rejected partisan congressional maps on Jan. 22.
What sets North Carolina apart, though, is the breadth of institutions that have been thrown against a wall. As the state prepares for 2018 campaign filing deadlines in February, congressional and Statehouse maps and even the district boundaries for the judges who handle garden-variety divorces and drunken driving cases are all in flux. Candidates for North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House seats are poised to run for the fourth election cycle in a row under maps deemed unconstitutional by federal courts. State legislature candidates don’t know who their voters are in at least nine districts. Judges have had their primaries canceled and are threatened with a constitutional amendment throwing them out of office at the end of this year.
Meanwhile, the state elections board charged with overseeing voting in the state has been vacant for seven months. After Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor in 2016, Republicans in the Statehouse passed a law effectively stripping the governor’s office of its authority to appoint a majority of its members. The board has been empty ever since, as the fight has moved through the courts. On Jan. 26 the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional for a second time, handing a political victory to Cooper, who can now go about filling the vacancies. The board has a lot of problems waiting for it. For the past seven months, aging voting equipment couldn’t be replaced, ethics complaints weren’t investigated, and no one had the authority to decertify voting software that malfunctioned in 2016 and whose vendor has been a target of Russian cyberattacks.
“This is as bizarre a situation as we have ever seen,” says Mitch Kokai, a senior analyst at Raleigh’s John Locke Foundation, a free-market think tank formed by North Carolina businessman Art Pope.
The current chaos can be traced to 2011, when Republicans took control of both chambers of North Carolina’s legislature for the first time in 114 years and quickly set about locking in their good fortune, only to be repeatedly blocked by courts. Their 2013 voter ID law was “surgical” in its disenfranchisement of minority voters, according to the federal court rulings that killed it. Lawmakers tried to impose Republican-friendly district boundaries on the Greensboro City Council and on the school board in Wake County, home of Democratic-leaning Raleigh. A federal appeals court struck down both efforts.
Even to many state conservatives, some measures seemed a step too far, such as a provision requiring the chairman of the state elections board to be a Republican during presidential years. “It seemed like Republicans just trying to get away with something,” Kokai says.
Then there are the maps. Republicans came to power in time to draw decennial district lines for both state chambers and for Congress in response to the 2010 U.S. Census. Although federal courts would reject all three maps as examples of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, they helped deliver a veto-proof supermajority to Statehouse Republicans by 2012 and lock in a GOP advantage in congressional races for most of the decade.
Last year a federal three-judge panel ordered state Republicans to redraw Statehouse district maps after deciding they were racially biased. On Jan. 19 the panel then threw out the redrawn map, replacing it with one drawn by a court-appointed expert. Republican lawmakers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency stay. With a Feb. 12 filing deadline looming, that means some Statehouse candidates don’t even know what district they’ll be running for. “Not only incumbent legislators but anyone thinking about running is not sure whether to take the plunge now,” says Dan Blue, the state Senate’s Democratic minority leader. “It’s all designed to be unclear. I think that’s part of the strategy.”
North Carolina’s congressional maps have also been rejected by federal courts twice. The first time, in February 2016, the problem was racial gerrymandering. State lawmakers drew a new one, designed—as House redistricting head Representative David Lewis said publicly—to ignore race in favor of partisan voting behavior. The goal, Lewis said, was to deliver 10 of 13 congressional districts to Republicans. That’s exactly how many seats GOP candidates won in 2016, despite the raw votes in the congressional races dividing almost evenly. On Jan. 9 a federal judges panel threw out that map, too, calling it “a successful, and unjustified, effort by the General Assembly to subordinate the interests of non-Republican voters and entrench Republican representatives in power.” That’s the ruling the U.S. Supreme Court put on hold nine days later.
It’s all made for an unprecedented amount of chaos, says Fourth District Democratic U.S. Congressman David Price: “I don’t think there’s any match in our history for what the Republicans have done since 2010. The maps, the districts, how we organize ourselves politically—it’s all in flux.”
The practice of politicians drawing electoral maps is unique to the U.S., says Andrew Reynolds, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies democratic structures. “North Carolina is very emblematic of what can go wrong. They have sucked out the competition from the system,” he says. “The only way out of this cycle is to take it out of politicians’ hands.”
More recently, North Carolina Republicans have turned their attention to remaking the state’s judicial system. They’ve already canceled this year’s judicial primaries and passed a law forcing all judges to run as either a Republican or a Democrat. They came into a January special session this year armed with a series of other proposals, including one that would cut judicial terms to two years and another to replace judicial elections with an appointment process controlled by the legislature. They also want to change judicial maps to pit incumbent Democratic judges against each other and create new judgeships for Republicans.
In Buncombe County, home to Asheville, a draft map splits a single county district into three separate districts. That puts Chief District Judge Calvin Hill, a black man, in the rural, Trump-loving part of the county. “They say they’re not looking at race, but they don’t have to,” Hill says. “You look at the urban areas; that’s where the African Americans are. You look at the rural areas; that’s where they’re not.”
The maps are still on the agenda, although other proposals have slowed, because Republicans can’t decide among them. Legislators say the judicial system needs a revamp. Opponents say lawmakers want revenge: “The legislature is saying to judges, ‘We can redraw your districts; we can redraw your divisions; we can cut your judicial staff; we can terminate your job at the end of the term,’” says Donald Stephens, who retired from the Superior Court in November. “We can be the bully on the political playground, and there is nothing you can do about it.”