In an evening decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the state of North Carolina will not have to immediately redraw its congressional district maps. The state was closing in on a deadline to produce maps that would satisfy a panel of federal judges who had ruled that the state legislature had drawn the map along partisan lines. The Supreme Court ruling means that the 2018 primaries and election will be held in districts that lower court judges had ruled unconstitutional.
The Republican legislative leaders in North Carolina had asked the Supreme Court to put the lower court’s ruling on hold. Because the high court is usually reluctant to require the drawing of new congressional districts without reviewing them, the decision was expected. Revealing the stakes for both parties, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor -- both of whom were nominated by Democrat presidents -- said they would not have granted North Carolina’s request.
The Supreme Court ruling comes during the same month that two other significant court rulings made waves. In the latter two, federal judges issued rulings that have the potential of changing how both North Carolina and Alabama will address the coming 2018 midterm elections.
In the case of Alabama, U.S. District Judge L. Scott Coogler ruled on January 10 to dismiss a lawsuit brought against the State of Alabama by Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP. The lawsuit sought to show that a voter identification law passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in 2011 unconstitutionally disadvantaged minority voters. In response, the NAACP released a statement saying its attorneys are “considering [their] next steps.”
Alabama’s voter identification law requires voters to produce at least one form of photo identification in order to vote. It was implemented to thwart voter fraud, while critics claim that it suppressed voter turnout. In March 2017, Deuel Ross -- the lead attorney for the NAACP -- estimated that more than 100,000 Alabama registered voters lack photo IDs that can be used to vote, while claiming that black and Latino voters are nearly twice as likely as white voters to lack such IDs.
Alabama’s primary election falls on June 5, while comes on July 17. The general election is on November 6.
Judge Coogler refuted the claim offered by the plaintiffs, writing, “Even though black and Latino registered voters are almost twice as likely as white voters to lack an acceptable photo ID, no one is prevented from voting.” The jurist noted Alabama’s various programs to grant the necessary identification to voters. Alabama offers a mobile ID unit that can travel to voters who lack transportation to get to an ID center. The mobile ID unit has “made more than 350 visits across the state” and visited every county.
"The issue is not who has or does not have a photo ID at present," Coogler wrote. "The issue is whether the Photo ID Law denies members of a minority group the opportunity to reasonably get one, assuming they want one." Coogle determined that "minorities do not have less opportunity to vote under Alabama Photo ID law because everyone has the same opportunity to obtain an ID." The judge cited the case of Elizabeth Ware, 60, a black voter from Mobile who was a plaintiff in the case. When her non-driver photo ID was stolen in 2014, she was turned away when she tried to replace it. After her deposition, the Secretary of State's mobile unit went to her residence to issue her a photo ID.
"The plaintiffs have simply failed to provide evidence that members of the protected class have less of an opportunity than others to participate in the political process," Coogler wrote. The judge cited rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld similar voter ID laws in Indiana and Georgia.
Alabama's Republican Attorney General Steve Marshall agreed with the decision. “Alabama's voter identification law is one of the broadest in the nation with procedures in place to allow anyone who does not have a photo ID to obtain one," said Marshall in a statement.
Coogler found that "even though Black and Latino registered voters are almost twice as likely as white voters to lack an acceptable photo ID, no one is prevented from voting." He ruled thta Alabama has made it easy to get an ID for voting purposes. "The issue is not who has or does not have a photo ID at present," Coogler wrote. "The issue is whether the Photo ID Law denies members of a minority group the opportunity to reasonably get one, assuming they want one."
He found that "minorities do not have less opportunity to vote under Alabama Photo ID law because everyone has the same opportunity to obtain an ID."
Coogler argued that “the ‘impact’ of the law should not be measured by how many people lack a given ID at a given point in time, but by whether someone without an ID can easily get one.” He found that Alabama had provided adequate accessibility and information to help voters — including minorities — obtain proper forms of identification. An expert provided by the NAACP could show that only 1.37 percent of whites, 2.44 percent of blacks, and 2.29 percent of Hispanics lacked an acceptable ID.
Democrats carve up North Carolina
In May 2017, a similar voter identification law was struck down in North Carolina, where Democrats have long complained of gerrymandering by Republicans. On January 9 of this year, a three-judge panel ruled that the congressional map drawn by the state in 2016 was motivated by partisan boundaries in violation of the First and 14th Amendments, as well as Article I of the Constitution. That map was used for the 2016 election, where Republicans won 10 out of the 13 districts. “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” said state Rep. David Lewis (R), “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.” The leftist League of Women Voters, and Common Cause, sued and got their victory when the three federal judges’ ruling became the first in which congressional districts are overruled on grounds of partisan gerrymandering.
Judge James A. Wynn Jr. wrote in his 191-page opinion, “We agree with Plaintiffs that a wealth of evidence proves the General Assembly’s intent to “subordinate” the interests of non-Republican voters and “entrench” Republican domination of the state’s congressional delegation.” Wynn claimed that Republicans in the state legislature had been “motivated by invidious partisan intent” when they divided North Carolina into 13 congressional districts, 10 of which are held by Republicans. He ruled that the legislature had violated the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection. The judge wrote that “a wealth of evidence proves the General Assembly’s intent to ‘subordinate’ the interests of non-Republican voters and ‘entrench’ Republican domination of the state’s congressional delegation.”
Judge Wynn, who sits on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, was a member of the special three-judge panel that examined North Carolina’s congressional map. Under federal law, constitutional challenges to the apportionment of House districts or statewide legislative bodies are automatically heard by such three-judge panels, while appeals are taken directly to the Supreme Court. Wynn was appointed by Barack Obama. Senior Judge W. Earl Britt of the Federal District Court in Raleigh, who was appointed by Jimmy Carter, joined the opinion. The third member of the panel was George W. Bush appointee Judge William L. Osteen Jr., who sits on the federal bench in Greensboro. While Osteen agreed that the existing congressional map violated the 14th Amendment, he disputed other parts of Judge Wynn’s opinion, including the appointment of an independent expert to begin preparing an alternative map.
North Carolina has less than two weeks to file a new map, which will be just in time for candidates to file their bid for the 2018 elections. A primary is expected on May 8, while a runoff would come on July 17. The general election falls on November 6.
A hypothetical “nonpartisan” congressional district map, drawn by the leftist Daily Kos website for the 2016 presidential race, showed the potential for upending the current distribution of congressional seats according to parties. While there are currently three seats held by Democrats in North Carolina, and 10 held by Republicans, under the scheme imagined by Daily Kos, the numbers would be significantly different. Daily Kos predicts that each party would definitely achieve five seats each, but three swing districts would emerge in areas currently represented by Republicans.
Among the districts in peril for Republicans are:
11th Congressional District: Rep. Mark Meadows
7th Congressional District: Rep. David Rouzer
2nd Congressional District: Rep. George Holding