GREENSBORO, N.C. — On the east side of Greensboro, the boundary separating North Carolina’s 6th and 13th congressional districts takes an abrupt detour. The line yanks hard to the west until it reaches Laurel Street, turns northward, and disappears into the brown-brick campus of North Carolina A&T State University, where it neatly bisects the nation’s largest historically black college.
Five dormitories lie in the 6th district; seven in the 13th. All are in unassailably Republican territory, as the line splits both the university and the city’s mostly Democratic 285,000 residents between two conservative rural bastions.
Nikolaus Knight, a senior and political science major, was assigned to a new dormitory after his freshman year — and had to re-register to vote as a result. “We had the power as a student body to sway an election,” he said. “And our voice as a campus was stripped away when we were cut in half.”
This is the power of mapmaking by the state’s Republican legislature, which drew new political borders three years ago that allowed Republicans to capture 10 of this state’s 13 House seats last fall, even though nearly half of all House votes went to Democratic candidates.
Nobody disputes that the North Carolina map was drafted to elect a maximum number of Republicans to the House, not even the Republicans themselves. The map has a 10-3 Republican tilt, one of its drafters said, “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments over whether such partisanship violates the Constitution. One case involves the Republican-drawn map in North Carolina. A companion case centers on Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, which Democrats admit they redrew in 2011 to make it harder for the Republican incumbent there to win re-election.
The two cases hold the potential to set the course of American politics for generations. A decision to rein in partisan gerrymanders could reshape House maps in a number of states, largely but not exclusively to the benefit of Democrats. A decision not to rein in the mapmakers would give both political parties carte blanche to entrench themselves and hogtie their opponents when state legislatures draw the next decade’s House districts in 2021.
The justices have dodged the issue of gerrymandering for decades, gridlocked over whether it is even possible to distinguish acceptably partisan maps from unconstitutional ones.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. worried aloud last year that creating a legal standard to identify partisan gerrymanders would turn the court into a sort of electoral kingmaker.
But now the North Carolina House map could force him and other justices to confront the issue head-on. The redrawing of Maryland’s House map by Democrats was also baldly political, ousting a 20-year Republican incumbent by infusing the rural 6th District with tens of thousands of urban Democrats. But compared with the lawmakers in North Carolina, the Maryland Democrats were restrained, turning down maps that would have wiped out the state’s other Republican-leaning House district as well.
Created three years ago, the North Carolina map was drawn for overtly partisan reasons. Indeed, the Republican chairman of the state House Elections Committee, Representative David R. Lewis, opened the drafting session by saying, “I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander.” Republicans ordered that the next map create “as many districts as possible in which G.O.P. candidates would be able to successfully compete for office.”
The result, drawn by the master Republican redistricting strategist Thomas B. Hofeller, met that mandate. It anchored three overwhelmingly Democratic districts in liberal cities — Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham. The remaining urban strongholds, in Asheville, Fayetteville and Greensboro-Winston-Salem, were filleted along party lines, with their most Democratic areas absorbed by otherwise rural Republican territories.
Democrats in the state had done their share of gerrymandering in the past, but it was nowhere near what the Republicans were now doing.
The map eliminated any competition for House seats in all but the most exceptional circumstances. In November, amid the strongest national Democratic electoral performance since Watergate, only one of the 10 Republican-held House seats was in serious jeopardy (that race, in the 9th Congressional District, was marred by election fraud complaints and will be rerun this summer). Democrats won the three districts that were gerrymandered in their favor by an average of 45 percentage points.
That highlights collateral damage from gerrymanders that is sometimes overlooked: Not only do they entrench a majority party, but they weaken the opposition as well. Candidates don’t want to run losing races, and donors and parties don’t want to support them.
Pete Glidewell can testify to that. Mr. Glidewell, a real-estate agent and Democratic activist in Elon, about 15 miles from Greensboro, ran in 2016 against the incumbent Republican in the newly drawn Sixth Congressional District, Mark Walker. Mr. Walker had won in 2014 with nearly 59 percent of the vote; Mr. Glidewell was the only Democrat to oppose him. “I thought I was better qualified than him,” he said. “I still do.”
Mr. Glidewell soon got a call from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the arm of the Democratic Party that doles out money and tactical support to House candidates. They were seeking a donation.
“I said, ‘Ma’am, I am actually running for Congress in this district, and I wish you’d pass along that I need as much help as you say you do,’” he recalled. But to the committee, Mr. Glidewell was a lost cause. “They wouldn’t talk to me,” he said.
In the campaign that followed, Mr. Glidewell’s largest contribution, $ 5,400, came from his wife. His campaign cost $ 93,300, most of it spent on internet advertising, yard signs and car magnets. “No television,” he said. “We couldn’t afford it.” Mr. Walker’s campaign spent more than that — $ 94,716, to be precise — on fund-raising consultants alone.
That November, Mr. Walker shellacked Mr. Glidewell, 59 percent to 41 percent, and had more than $ 225,000 in unspent donations in the bank. Other incumbent House members have leftover funds from past campaigns, too — $ 2.4 million, in one case. “So it’s even more impossible to get a credible opponent,” Mr. Glidewell said.
Tim Moreland is a Democratic political operative in Guilford County, where Greensboro is located. He said that uncompetitive districts lead to lazy incumbents, less-qualified challengers and election campaigns that provide little clarity.
“We get a lot of politicians who have been in seats for a very long time,” he said. “They’ve never had to run a competitive election, or raise a lot of money, or work to build relationships with the other party. Input from the average voter matters less and less.”
Some academics dispute it, but political veterans say gerrymanders widen political divisions because incumbents have no incentive to court moderates and swing voters.
“If the most competitive race you’ve got is against some right-wing or left-wing person in the primary, and you don’t have to worry about the general election, you end up with representatives who aren’t really representative,” Thomas Mills, a onetime Democratic campaign consultant who ran his own losing campaign for a gerrymandered House seat in 2016, said in an interview.
The case against partisan gerrymanders is not merely a Democratic one. Republican candidates in North Carolina’s three safe Democratic House seats also were disenfranchised, along with their supporters. So were Republicans in Maryland’s 6th District.
The plaintiffs in the North Carolina and Maryland cases argue that the maps violate the Constitution in a number of ways. They say the maps effectively punish supporters of gerrymandered candidates for expressing their political preference, violating both the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal treatment under the law.
And they say the maps pervert Article One of the Constitution, whose rationale for frequent House elections was to make the chamber’s members more responsive to the American people. But with a gerrymander, they argue, the people have almost no voice.
Yet even if a majority of the justices agree, that may not carry the day for the opponents of gerrymanders. The question of how to spot rigged maps still remains: Since no political map is completely free of bias, how do judges distinguish between the acceptable and the unacceptable?
Defenders of North Carolina and Maryland’s maps say the court has no business trying, and will shred its reputation for above-the-fray fairness if it starts deciding whether maps favor one party or another. Partisan gerrymandering, they say, is a political issue best addressed by the politicians in Congress and the states.
But that is precisely the issue, voting-rights advocates say: Gerrymanders are creations of lawmakers, who have seldom had much interest in curbing their own power.
And the modern tools of map-drawing — powerful computers and software, and an unprecedented cascade of data on voters — have allowed drafters to turn political districts into near-impregnable fortresses that can sustain a party’s hold on power from one redistricting cycle to the next.
“Because of the availability of data, we can aggregate voting patterns and organize them in a way that the political system can be controlled by decision makers,” said Douglas Berger, a Durham lawyer and a plaintiff in one of the North Carolina lawsuits.
He speaks from experience. His firm’s political-action committee uses data analytics to assess a candidate’s prospects with ever-greater precision before deciding whether to donate to a campaign. Partly because of that, the PAC largely steers clear of supporting North Carolina candidates for the House.
Yet technology may also provide an answer to the conundrum that has kept the court from acting.
Social scientists have devised a host of new yardsticks in recent years for gauging partisan leanings in maps. Perhaps most important among them is that advances in computing now permit experts to randomly generate thousands and even millions of hypothetical maps, all drawn using the same criteria, that can be compared with the maps challenged in gerrymander trials. Mathematical formulas can then calculate whether a challenged map is part of the pack in its partisan tilt or is at the extremes — a “statistical outlier,” in redistricting parlance.
That already has been done in the federal trial challenging the North Carolina gerrymander. There, an expert witness for the plaintiffs randomly generated 3,000 simulated congressional district maps using the same demographic data as the official map that has regularly awarded Republicans 10 of 13 seats.
None of the 3,000 gave the party more than nine seats.