With a little over two months remaining until the November midterm elections, three federal judges of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that North Carolina’s map of congressional districts had been drawn to offer a deliberate and impermissible advantage to Republicans. The map had been scrutinized and criticized in a series of court cases since 2016. Republicans redrew the congressional districts boundaries in the wake of a 2010 census. The new map created two districts with a disproportionate number of black voters. When a federal court struck down the map as a violation of the Equal Protection Clause based on race, North Carolina Republicans responded that the districts weren’t segregated by race but by political party. In other words, they wanted to confine Democratic voters to just two districts. The panel of federal judges that heard the subsequent appeal accepted the Republicans’ reasoning – i.e. that they were attempting to disadvantage Democrats, not African-Americans. However, the panel ruled that the redistricting still violated the Equal Protection Clause, finding that the plaintiffs had shown both discriminatory intent and discriminatory effects, the necessary elements of a partisan gerrymandering claim under the Equal Protection Clause. The court agreed that the districts had been drawn with the impermissible intent of establishing a partisan advantage for one party at the expense of others, and that the redistricting had intended discriminatory effect.
North Carolina may currently have a midterm dilemma, but efforts to shape voting maps for political advantage are nothing new. The practice, known as “gerrymandering,” got its name from a nineteenth-century Massachusetts governor, Elbridge Gerry, who presided over a redistricting of the commonwealth that broke Federalist power and handed control of the legislature to the Democratic-Republican party. Because one of the new, Gerry-approved districts was thought to look like a salamander, the practice of redistricting for political gain became known as “gerrymandering.”
While the practice of gerrymandering stretches back into the early nineteenth century, it has recently attracted the attention of voters and the criticism of courts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently redrew the congressional district map to ease a long-term, partisan gerrymander. Recent cases in Wisconsin and Maryland have also underscored the importance and persistence of the issue. In the context of “red states” and “blue states,” the issue of gerrymandering is likely to dominate political conversations for years to come.