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Mapping the Trail to Environmental Victory

The campaign trail to environmental victory runs through fair maps and competitive elections, and we’re getting closer to seeing that in North Carolina. Last week, two major court decisions moved the state toward new, still imperfect, but more competitive district maps.

In the case for fair state legislative maps, the state Supreme Court said it would not hear an expedited appeal from the lower court panel’s decision. In that case, a three-judge Superior Court panel had previously held North Carolina’s 2016 legislative maps to be unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. That panel ordered the General Assembly to redraw its maps under specific conditions, which it did. The court then reviewed and approved the redrawn maps.

That case’s plaintiffs appealed to the state Supreme Court, asking it to order that some of the districts be redrawn yet again. However, the Supreme Court denied that request without elaboration. Plaintiffs may still take their case to the state Court of Appeals. But it is now likely that the candidate filings (and probably the primary vote) for state legislative races will continue as scheduled, in December and March respectively.

Observers on all sides of the debate agree the process of redrawing the legislative maps pursuant to the court panel’s order was more transparent than previous processes, and resulted in more potentially competitive districts than the various maps used earlier in the decade. From citizen advocates’ perspective, fairer district maps and more competitive elections mean a greater likelihood the public’s anti-pollution, pro-clean energy voices are reflected in election results. But it still pales in comparison to a truly independent, nonpartisan redistricting process removing map-drawing from self-interested legislators’ hands.

Meanwhile, legislators also redrew North Carolina’s congressional districts after the same judges ruled those unconstitutional in a separate case. However, lawmakers’ action in the congressional redrawing process did not proceed under the terms of a specific and detailed court order. Instead, they acted in response to a non-binding suggestion in the judges’ preliminary order.

In this case, the court issued a preliminary injunction ordering the State of North Carolina not to proceed with 2020 congressional elections under its existing maps. (A preliminary injunction is an order prior to trial, intended to prevent actions which the court concludes it will probably not allow in its final order after trial.) The court concluded the evidence it has seen in this case will likely result in the same conclusion of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering as they found in the state legislative districts case. 

Last week, the General Assembly concluded an abbreviated congressional map redrawing process pursuant to the court’s suggestion that it might be able to avoid delays in those elections if it acted quickly. However, the maps they came up with were more broadly criticized as still excessively partisan than their legislative maps were. While the new maps narrow the likely partisan split in the state’s congressional delegation from 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats to 8 and 5, the districts themselves are no more competitive. The parties challenging the state’s congressional maps have already said they will continue that challenge, and a lawsuit against the new map has also been filed by a national anti-gerrymandering group. A delay in North Carolina’s congressional elections schedule now seems more likely.

Common Cause NC executive director Bob Phillips said, “A map forced through by the majority party on a partisan vote does not instill confidence in the fairness of the new districts. We believe the congressional districts passed by the legislature today remain a partisan gerrymander. Ultimately, this latest and deeply flawed redraw by the legislature has made clear once again that partisan politicians simply cannot be relied upon to draw nonpartisan voting districts.”

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