Gerrymandering was a tool used heavily during the late 90s and early 2000s, in cases such as Shaw v. Reno and Vieth v. Jubelirer. It is an intentional attempt to increase the power of one political party in approaching elections through the manipulation of district mapping. Harper v. Hall is a case that demonstrates that the practice remains pervasive in modern politics.
Filed on November 17, 2021, the case was centered on a recent gerrymandering attempt in North Carolina. The claim asserted that the proposed maps for the 2022 elections, also called the Enacted Congressional Plan, violated the “Free Elections Clause, Equal Protection Clause, and Free Speech and Free Assembly Clauses” of the North Carolina Constitution, which would thus violate the right to a fair and equal election.
The goal of the suit was to block the adoption of these maps, with the hope of redrafting them. However, if the maps were unable to be redrafted in time, the suit asked to use previous maps, until fair maps could be created.
The case was filed by 19 black plaintiffs against Republican legislators following the release of redistricted maps. Amongst the 19 plaintiffs were professors from Wake Forest University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, numerous formerly-elected officials (one of which was a personal friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.), scientists, mathematicians, veterans, and preachers. While diverse, these individuals were united by the belief that these new districting plans would reduce the voting power of black citizens in North Carolina. The North Carolina League of Conservation Voters (NCLCV), a “nonpartisan nonprofit advocacy organization” aimed at environmental improvement through the support of “legislators and statewide candidates who share [their] values”, also sued the legislators for gerrymandering. As a result, the two lawsuits were condensed, combining under the name Harper v. Hall. The 14 defendants included all Senators and Representatives that participated in and supported the drafting of the redistricting maps.
The Enacted Congressional Plan was drafted following the 2020 census. Plaintiffs claimed that the maps intentionally dilute black voting power by dividing majority-black communities into multiple districts so that they become a minority in a white-dominated district. For example, the suit claims that “the Enacted Congressional Plan splinters Democratic strongholds in Wake, Mecklenburg, and Guilford Counties [which are all communities with high black populations] into three districts each, precisely in order to dilute Democratic voting strength.”
Historically speaking, cases regarding gerrymandering have been difficult to prove, as redistricting has not been an exact science. However, in recent years, computational models have been developed to draft fair district lines, which balance population and reduce political bias through the use of an algorithm. Maps drafted with these models are called the “Optimized Maps.” As evidence of gerrymandering that politically favored Republicans, the plaintiffs compared the Optimized Maps with the Enacted Congressional Plan and found that, compared to the Optimized Maps, “a nearly tied election will deliver 71% of North Carolina’s delegation to Republicans,” essentially preventing the possibility of any Democratic victory. Plaintiffs also provided evidence of racial bias by using the models to conclude that “even though… minority groups account for more than 30% of North Carolina’s adult citizens, and thus could be expected to win elections in four of the state’s 14 districts, the Enacted Congressional Plan deprives them of the ability to win elections in all but two districts,” indicating a significant reduction of political power for people of color.
Initially, a state court denied claims of gerrymandering and racially biased redistricting. The Court of Appeals also unanimously denied the claims and cited fear of overstepping the boundaries of judicial powers. However, on February 4th, 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down that ruling in a 4-3 party-split decision, with all four Democrats concurring and the three Republicans dissenting. The court concluded that there was overwhelming evidence of intentional racial bias in the drawing of these Congressional maps. In the court’s opinion, the Justices described their ruling as an unavoidable one; if they had not ruled as they did, the Justices believed the legislature would gain “unlimited power to draw electoral maps that keep themselves and our members of Congress in office as long as they want, regardless of the will of the people, by making some votes more powerful than others.”
The legislature will be given a second opportunity to redraw the maps, but there is no guarantee that the Court will uphold or use them. If the new maps are found to also be unconstitutional, the Court will choose maps drawn by the plaintiffs, or ask an outside expert to draft maps.
This puts in safeguards for the future of Hall, giving the North Carolina Supreme Court the right to intervene to prevent further encroachment of African American voting rights to equal voting power, providing some hope of improvement for the future of voting equality.
Nicole Masarova is from Foster City, California, studying Public Policy.