A three-judge panel denied requests to delay candidate filing for congressional, state House and Senate districts scheduled to start Monday, questioning arguments that the redistricting plans are unconstitutional gerrymanders.
Superior Court Judge A. Graham Shirley said a Supreme Court redistricting opinion from the early 2000s “makes it clear that partisan advantage can be taken into account in redistricting,” and the three-judge panel had “a reasonable doubt as to whether these acts of the General Assembly are unconstitutional.”
The ruling was on motions in two lawsuits. The League of Conservation Voters is challenging congressional and legislative maps as unconstitutional gerrymanders. Voters supported by the National Redistricting Foundation are challenging the congressional district map.
Lawyers who argued in court for those groups did not say whether they would appeal the three-judge panel’s ruling. But in a tweet, Marc Elias, a lawyer representing voters in the National Redistricting Foundation-backed lawsuit, said, “We will appeal.”
The decision allowing candidate filing and primaries to continue using existing maps does not mean the lawsuits end.
Lawyers for groups challenging the maps said they are “extreme partisan gerrymanders” that violate the state constitution.
Zach Schauf, a lawyer representing the League of Conservation Voters, said the redistricting plans “bake in” Republican majorities, no matter what voters want.
The maps “result in an entrenched Republican majority that is nearly impervious to any electoral outcome,” he said.
Groups that evaluate districts say that the congressional map has at least 10 Republican districts out of 14. Voters split about 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans in state elections.
Republicans used “classic gerrymandering tactics” to create the districts, Schauf said, by “packing” Democrats into districts that will elect a Democrat, as they did in creating congressional District 8 in Mecklenburg, and parceling out other voters into largely Republican districts where their numbers aren’t enough to influence elections, as they did to create congressional District 13.
District 13 shaves voters from north and west Mecklenburg County and adds them to largely Republican counties to the west.
Phil Strach, a lawyer representing Republican legislators, said no one knows whether districts will elect Democrats or Republicans. Voter choices are based on who leads a ticket, political climate, political coalitions, and other factors, he said.
The district lines result from geography, said Katherine McKnight, a lawyer for Republican legislators. The districts look the way they do because Democratic votes are concentrated in urban areas while Republican voters are disbursed across the state.
But Elisabeth Theodore, a lawyer in the National Redistricting Foundation-backed lawsuit, said the results were not strictly about geography. The state’s largest counties, Wake, Mecklenburg, and Guilford, were all unnecessarily split into three pieces, she said.
“These 10 Republican districts are impervious to the will of the voters,” she said.
Shirley said the constitution put redistricting in the hands of the legislature, a political body.
“It results in an ill that has affected the country and this state since Colonial times,” he said. The people of the state have had “an opportunity on numerous occasions to correct this ill and have chosen not to do so.”