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Day One of NC partisan gerrymandering case: 2016 congressional map an ‘extreme statistical outlier’

Voters held fair maps signs recently at a partisan gerrymandering hearing at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington D.C. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

The 2016 congressional maps that led to 10-3 Republican representation from North Carolina constitute an “extreme statistical outlier in terms of its partisanship,” according to witness testimony from the first day of a federal partisan gerrymandering trial.

“It’s pretty clear what Dr. [Tom] Hofeller was creating here,” said Jowei Chen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan.

Chen, an expert witness for plaintiffs challenging the map, conducted an empirical study to analyze the extent of partisanship used by the mapmaker, Hofeller. He created an “apples to apples” comparison of Hofeller’s formula to 1,000 simulated maps using all redistricting criteria from 2016 except partisan considerations.

According to his maps, a 10-3 Republican Congressional win in North Carolina occurred zero times, even when he created new data sets to include incumbency protections and precinct splits. The most common outcomes based on the simulations was the election of either six or seven Republicans along with six or seven Democrats.

Chen programmed an algorithm to create maps that would protect all 13 incumbent representative. Still, there were zero out of 1,000 maps that resulted in a 10-3 Republican edge.

“Even such an extreme effort would not have resulted in the extreme partisan outlier,” Chen said.

Judges James Wynn, William Osteen and Earl Britt began hearing testimony Monday at the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro in two partisan gerrymandering lawsuits filed by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause in North Carolina.

Osteen, who appears to be the lead judge, instructed parties that morning that the law was in dispute, not findings of fact, and he asked for each side to plan on only putting on expert witnesses to testify. Each party had already filed their opening arguments with the court Friday to help shorten the time frame.

Hofeller, who was at the hearing, said he didn’t believe he would be testifying since he’s classified as a fact witness.

“It’s OK, I don’t feel left out,” he joked during a break in the trial.

In addition to partisan gerrymandering, Hofeller’s maps have been found to be racially gerrymandered. He recently redrew state House and Senate legislative maps to correct the constitutional violations and a different three-judge panel (which includes Wynn) is currently deciding whether or not to accept them.

Hofeller wore a navy suit and red and navy tie with his white hair combed over his head. He pursed his lips frequently during the hearing with either his arms crossed or his hands clasped in his lap. Even more often, he conferred with a man sitting beside him — the two whispered back and forth as witnesses spoke.

Hofeller said Monday at the trial that he could not comment on the partisan gerrymandering litigation since he is part of it. Once he was identified by reporters, he joked, “see, I don’t have horns.”

The plaintiffs’ other witness who presented a statistical analysis Monday was Jonathan Christopher Mattingly, a professor of mathematics at Duke University. He told the court that his research showed Hofeller’s maps were not randomly chosen.

“I think I can tell the court that this is an outlier, that this is unreasonable,” Mattingly said of the Congressional maps.

During the lunch break there was a press conference outside the courthouse that involved voting rights advocates and disenfranchised voters.

“This display of hyper-partisan gerrymandering has created nothing but absolute confusion and uncertainty on our campus,” said Braxton Brewington, a 21-year-old senior at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. “I am insulted as a North Carolina voter and feel victimized as an HBCU student.”

The school, which is the largest historically Black university in the nation and played a crucial role in the Civil Rights Movement, was split into two voting districts.

“The idea that the lawmakers in North Carolina saw fit to suppress my vote and the voting strength of my peers because we attend this wonderful university is baffling,” Brewington described. “The right to vote should be easy, accessible; it should present multiple opportunities for itself, not create restrictions and constraint. This is not only an unconstitutional gerrymandering but an attack on our campus.”

A self-described conservative Republican, Morton Lurie, who is part of the lawsuit, described how he too felt left behind under the maps in question. He alleged gerrymandering in his district to guarantee Democratic Congressman David Price a win for many years. 

Lurie said he has a difficult time trying to communicate with Price and said that the best representation comes from competitive districts.

“Competitive districts make Congressmen more sensitive to the will and interests of the voters — Democrat, Republican or unaffiliated — in their district,” he said. “I know that is difficult , but the current districts prevent many, many North Carolinians from being represented by someone sensitive to their needs and interests.”

Jennifer Bremer spoke on behalf of plaintiffs the League of Women Voters of North Carolina (LWV). She compared partisan gerrymandering to “putting the grandkids in charge of the cookie jar.”

“The poisoned fruit of all this manipulation is rising dysfunction, mistrust and public policies that don’t reflect the will of the majority,” she explained. “Extreme gerrymanders reward extreme viewpoints and undercut consensus. Rigged maps are pushing us further apart when we urgently need to find common ground.”

Similar to the pending U.S. Supreme Court partisan gerrymandering case out of Wisconsin, North Carolina plaintiffs are putting forward a three-prong test to address when a partisan gerrymander should be found unconstitutional: discriminatory intent, effect and justifiability.

“While we are talking about partisan gerrymandering today, it is North Carolinians of color who are disproportionately harmed by partisan gerrymandering,” said Dustin Chicurel-Bayard, spokesman for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represents the LWV. “Voters of color are often the ones packed and cracked into or out of districts under the pretense of partisanship.”

He said it’s clear to see the 2016 maps violate freedom of speech in the First Amendment and equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause NC, and Jane Pinsky, Director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform, also spoke at the press conference.

“What’s fair is for, in this case, a Congressional map to reflect what North Carolina really is, and that is a very politically divided state,” Phillips said. “It is not three and one party and 10 in the other.”

Pinsky spoke about the state’s “sad history of redistricting abuse,” and called on lawmakers to pass legislation for an independent redistricting commission.

“We’ve had enough of the fox guarding the henhouse,” she said. “It’s time that the voters decide, not the politicians.”

Day Two of the expected four-day trial starts at 9 a.m. this morning in Greensboro. Closing arguments aren’t expected until Thursday.

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