The last time North Carolina Republicans redrew the state’s 13 congressional districts, they made absolutely no secret of their ambition to rig the system and lock in a 10-3 balance in their favour – regardless of whether they or the Democrats won a majority of the votes in future elections. “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” bragged the chair of the redistricting committee in the state general assembly, David Lewis. “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.” Drastic improvements in mapping technologies and voter information databases meant specialist mapmakers had unprecedented power to manipulate political outcomes, even in a swing state like North Carolina where one would ordinarily expect to see US House and state legislative seats split more or less evenly between the two parties. The instruction from Lewis and his colleagues, according to court documents, was “to create as many districts as possible in which GOP candidates would be able to successfully compete for office”.
That was in 2016, when the prevailing wisdom across the US was that partisan gerrymandering was one of the legitimate spoils of American politics. Up to that point, the courts had punished gerrymandering along racial lines – one North Carolina map from the 1990s that packed black voters into the fewest possible districts was memorably likened to “political apartheid” – but raised little or no objection to state maps that favored one party over another.
That may be about to change dramatically, in the wake of a bombshell ruling from a federal court in North Carolina last week that found the 2016 redistricting plan to be a violation of both the constitution’s equal protection clause and an infringement on the free speech of voters who cannot meaningfully cast a ballot if the outcome is all but predetermined.