WASHINGTON — A North Carolina court rejected a Republican-drawn map of the state’s 14 congressional districts on Wednesday and substituted its own version, the second time in less than two weeks that a court in the state has invalidated a Republican House map as unconstitutionally partisan.
The new map, drawn by a nonpartisan panel of four redistricting experts, appeared to split North Carolina’s congressional districts roughly equally between Republicans and Democrats, in a state where voters are divided evenly along partisan lines. It gives each party six relatively safe House seats and makes the remaining two winnable by either side.
The Republican-drawn map that was rejected would have awarded the G.O.P. six safe seats and Democrats four, leaving the remaining four as tossups.
Voting-rights advocacy groups and Democrats had argued to block the latest Republican map, saying it unlawfully favored Republicans. A three-judge panel of the state Superior Court in Raleigh agreed. It ruled Wednesday that the latest map failed to meet the standards for fairness set out by the State Supreme Court on Feb. 4, when that court invalidated the original map drawn by the Republican-controlled State Legislature.
In the Feb. 4 ruling, the State Supreme Court said that Republican maps of congressional districts and State Legislature seats violated a host of provisions in the State Constitution that guarantee freedom of speech, free elections and equal protection. Any valid map, the justices said, would have to satisfy “some combination” of five statistical measures of partisan fairness developed by political scientists in recent decades.
What to Know About Redistricting and Gerrymandering
On Wednesday, the Raleigh court did approve a Republican-drawn map of the State House, which all sides in the redistricting lawsuit had supported, and a new Republican map of the State Senate, which plaintiffs in the suit had opposed.
Both sides said they would appeal aspects of the Superior Court decision to the State Supreme Court. Tom Moore, the speaker of the State House, called the rejection of the Republican map “nothing short of egregious,” and Republicans asked the state’s top court to stay the use of the new map for now. The plaintiffs — Common Cause, the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and a group of Democratic voters in the state — all appealed the approvals of either the State House or State Senate maps, or both.
The ruling on Wednesday further cemented the rising importance of state courts in redistricting battles since 2019, when the U.S. Supreme Court said that partisan gerrymandering was a political issue beyond its jurisdiction. In recent weeks, the State Supreme Court in Ohio has twice rejected maps of the State Legislature drawn by a Republican-leaning redistricting commission.
Also on Wednesday, the State Supreme Court in Pennsylvania put its mark on that state’s congressional map, settling a partisan dispute over boundaries for House seats by selecting a map drawn by a Stanford University political scientist.
The Stanford map of 17 House seats, which had been proposed by Democratic Party supporters who filed a redistricting lawsuit last year, appears to give Republicans nine fairly safe seats and Democrats eight, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. Each party currently holds nine House seats, but Pennsylvania will lose a seat next year because of reapportionment after the 2020 census.
How U.S. Redistricting Works
What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.
How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.
Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.
If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.
Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.
On Tuesday, two Republican candidates for House seats in Pennsylvania asked a federal court to bar the state court from selecting a map, arguing that the federal Constitution reserved that duty exclusively for legislatures. There have been suggestions that Republicans in North Carolina might make a similar appeal.
Federal courts have rejected such arguments in the past. But in recent months, four conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have hinted at support for a novel argument, called the independent state legislature doctrine, that state legislatures have complete authority over election laws absent action by Congress.
Any further delay in approving district maps in Pennsylvania or North Carolina could cause issues for an election schedule that already has been delayed by litigation. Pennsylvania has extended its deadline for candidates to file to run in primary election races until mid-May because of the dispute over congressional districts, and Republicans in the State Legislature asked a court last week to block State House and Senate maps drawn by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission.
In North Carolina, filing for primary election contests is set to resume on Thursday, but further challenges to any of the maps could delay that.
There is precedent, said Gerry Cohen, a longtime expert on North Carolina’s Legislature and politics who sits on the Wake County Board of Elections in Raleigh. “In 2016, we had a separate congressional primary later in the year” because of a map dispute, he said. “So I guess anything is possible.”