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A North Carolina state court panel stopped the GOP’s gerrymandering plan by ruling that the maps drawn for GOP-dominated voting districts were in violating of the state’s constitution, and of the rights of North Carolina voters

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JACQUELINE LUQMAN: If you have been ignoring the gerrymandering issue because you didn’t think it affects you, think again.

NC SENATOR FLOYD B. MCKISSICK: I don’t know why, based upon the number of Democratic registered voters, Republican registered voters, and unaffiliated voters in this state, we would want to ever sit and ingrain as a criteria for redistricting that we would only allow one party three seats in Congress, and the other one ten in Congress.

NC REPRESENTATIVE DAVID LEWIS: We want to make clear that we, to the extent, are going to use political data in drawing this map. It is to gain partisan advantage on the map.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: You heard that correctly. In North Carolina in 2016, a GOP representative openly admitted that the GOP wanted to redraw the boundaries of voting districts to gain and keep political advantage for the Republicans. But this week, a North Carolina State Court panel stopped the GOP’s plan by ruling that the maps they drew to establish these GOP dominated voting districts were “unconstitutional.”

With me today from Los Angeles to talk about this case and its possible implications nationwide is Dan Vicuna. Dan is the National Redistricting Manager at Common Cause, where he manages the organization’s amicus brief campaigns in the Supreme Court, and supports the organization’s state orgs, organizations and chapters, in their efforts to end gerrymandering across the country. Thank you so much for joining me today, Dan.

DAN VICUNA: Yeah, thanks for having me.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So Common Cause was one of the plaintiffs that brought this lawsuit to address this issue, right?

DAN VICUNA: That’s right. We were one of the plaintiffs. We shared the stage with the National Redistricting Foundation, and also some very brave, very helpful individual voters in the state as well.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And this win in North Carolina in particular is noteworthy after the Supreme Court decision in June that threw everybody in the voting rights community for a loop, where the Supreme Court basically punted the responsibility for addressing gerrymandering from the federal level back to the States. So what the Supreme court said was that even in the most extreme gerrymandering cases, it was beyond the federal court’s jurisdiction to do anything about it. But Justice, Chief Justice Roberts said that state constitutions could provide standards and guidance for state courts to apply. So did North Carolina just pick up the ball where the Supreme Court dropped it?

DAN VICUNA: Yeah, absolutely. So the decision of both in the Rucho v. Common Cause case, one that we brought and won at the trial, and also a case called Benisek v. Lamone, and actually at the Supreme Court it was Lamone v. Benisek, were both extreme examples of the worst parts of gerrymandering imaginable, done by Democrats in Maryland and the Republicans in North Carolina. And as you mentioned, the Supreme Court issued a very disappointing decision stating that federal courts would just stay out of this problem, but you had a virulent dissent by Justice Kagan really kind of picked apart the reasoning of the majority, stating that that this was too important for courts to stay out of, but unfortunately, it was a dissenting opinion. Chief Justice Roberts and the four conservatives said that federal courts have really no place to do anything when it comes to partisan gerrymandering.

But as you mentioned, yeah, the Chief Justice really did explicitly state that the next round of this fight will be in the state courts, both in terms of challenging gerrymanders in state court, under state law, state constitutions, and in terms of pushing for reform in the states through ballot initiatives, through legislative lobbying. And we saw success similar to ours even before the Rucho decision in Pennsylvania, where the plaintiffs used the Free and Equal Elections Clause, a provision of the state constitution that Pennsylvania had in theirs that the US Constitution does not contain. North Carolina also has a Free Elections Clause, which we think provided added voter protection.

But in addition, the trial court in the North Carolina case also stated that voters were protected against partisan gerrymanders by the state constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, Free Speech Clause, and Free Association Clause. So, we think we’ve got a formula for potentially taking this on the road and defeating gerrymanders left and right, especially after the next set of maps are drawn in 2021.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And in response to the North Carolina State Court panel’s decision, where they explicitly mentioned in their 357-page decision, striking down these GOP gerrymandered maps, they explicitly stated the violations of voters’ rights in those areas that you mentioned, but the GOP State Senate leader’s response— his name is Phil Berger— was very interesting. He said, “it,” meaning the ruling of the North Carolina court panel, “it contradicts the Constitution and binding legal precedent, but we intend to respect the court’s decision and finally put this divisive battle behind us.” He says, “It’s time to move on.”

I see you smiling, Dan. So, how could the GOP think that the ruling against their gerrymandered maps is unconstitutional, when it was their gerrymandered maps that were ruled a violation of the state’s constitution and a violation of the rights of voters in North Carolina?

DAN VICUNA: Yeah, I think the state legislator who made the statement is going to need a little bit of sort of Law Constitution 101. It’s the very job of the courts in North Carolina to interpret North Carolina law, and when they saw what was proven at trial to be a blatant attempt to steal control of the North Carolina General Assembly, both the Senate and the House, demonstrated by, in part the fact that Democrats won more votes than Republicans and still won many fewer seats after the 2018 elections, demonstrated by our experts who showed what a significant outlier the actual map was compared to about a thousand, several thousand generated maps, maps generated by the computer using nonpartisan criteria. This was way outside the norm of the number of seats that Democrats or Republicans each should have won. So it’s the North Carolina court’s job to interpret the law. I don’t know what binding precedent he’s talking about. If he was so confident that this was somehow a decision inconsistent with North Carolina law, he certainly could have appealed the decision, but the legislature decided not to appeal. They realized that this is a loser of a case, so we’re just thrilled with the outcome.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now, of course, there were severe racial implications connected to voter suppression because that’s what this is a part of. Gerrymandering is just another form of voter suppression, targeting racial minorities, but gerrymandering redraws district lines to include more voters that are more likely to be in one political party or the other. But the racial implications of gerrymandering are very clear, and had been very clear in North Carolina and in other states. Is that correct?

DAN VICUNA: Yeah, I mean, what’s interesting is that this case—And actually, our challenge to North Carolina’s congressional districts, both started the same way. The maps were struck down by federal court as illegal racial gerrymanders. And that decision, those decisions, they stand. And so, the reason the legislature redrew districts, both for the congressional seats and in our situation, the case we brought in, the case of the state legislative seats, they had to redraw them after that federal court ruling striking down racial gerrymanders.

I mean, this has a long history in North Carolina and across the country, of communities of color being sliced and diced for the purposes of ensuring the protection of an incumbent, ensuring one party’s control over the legislature. Typically when Republicans, like the North Carolina legislature, engage in this activity, what they like to do is to pack as many voters of color into as few districts as possible, so that they may win overwhelming majorities in one or two districts, but can have sort of minimal impact on the rest of the state.

We’re thrilled, I think, that we’ve now kind of taken on both racial gerrymandering and partisan gerrymandering as a way, hopefully at least in North Carolina, of trapping legislators into being forced to do the right thing on this. And if they don’t in future redistricting cycles, we’ve got the wind in our backs in terms of North Carolina law.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And Dan, finally, I have to ask you, this whole idea of redrawing voting districts to exclude some voters, to allow some other voters to have more participation or greater representation in the republic or in government representation, it’s not new is it? Gerrymandering isn’t even a new concept. This idea of limiting access to democracy, it’s almost as old as the republic itself, isn’t it?

DAN VICUNA: Yeah. I mean, an attempt to limit the franchise to the right voters according to the powers that be is indeed as old as the Republic, but so is the fight to stop it. I think that when it comes to things like moving polling places away from certain communities, direct voter ID, using false claims of voter fraud, which we know is not really a problem in this country. And it really goes hand in glove with the use of gerrymander, the dividing of districts, the dividing up or packing of certain communities to make it harder for their voices to be heard.

So I think not only was our court win a step in the right direction specifically on the redistricting issue, but I think it’s just another step in the right direction in the overall fight to extend the franchise fairly and freely. So we’re just, we’re thrilled that we can take us a step in the right direction – score a big win for democracy

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: How many pending cases like North Carolina’s are still yet to be argued and decided upon, and what’s next in Common Cause’s efforts in this fight?

DAN VICUNA: So for this cycle, this is the last one. There were some federal cases in Michigan and Ohio that had to be – that were basically stopped dead in their tracks by the Supreme Court’s decision to keep federal courts from doing anything about this problem. So for this cycle, this is it. I think the plaintiffs and other parties in North Carolina, including ourselves, we are having discussions about whether there’s a feasible path to suing in state court on the congressional districts in North Carolina. The timeline is short, so we’ve got to figure that out very quickly.

But I think you’re really going to see these provisions in state constitutions, state law interpretations of state constitutions broadly, really weaponized for pro-voter efforts, more maybe after the next redistricting cycle. And we’ll be taking a really close look at where there’s legislative control of the process, single-party control, and where districts are manipulated in favor of a party candidate or to make it more difficult for certain communities to cast an effective vote. And we’ll be ready.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Well, this was really, certainly great news coming out of North Carolina, on the heels of extremely disappointing news from the Supreme Court of the United States on this issue of gerrymandering. So I thank you so much, Dan Vicuna, for joining me to talk about this issue.

DAN VICUNA: Yeah, thanks for having me. Always happy to share good news

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And we are always happy to receive it. And thank you for watching. If you like what you see here and learn here on The Real News Network, subscribe to our YouTube channel. In the meantime, this is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network from Baltimore.

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Dan Vicuna is the national redistricting manager at Common Cause. He manages the organization’s amicus brief campagns in the Supreme Court and supports Common Cause’s state organizations in their efforts to end gerrymandering.