Expert Witness Says Mapmaker Used Racial Data to Create North Carolina Voting Districts

RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) – Previously secret files of a deceased mapmaker were the focus of the second day of a trial that will determine whether North Carolina voting districts were unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

An expert for the plaintiffs – the North Carolina Democratic Party, an advocacy group and individuals – testified in Superior Court in the state’s capital Tuesday that mapmaker and Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller arranged district data by the percentage of African-American voters in each area.

In a similar case last year, counsel for the state’s General Assembly testified that data relating to the race of voters was never even loaded into the computer that Hofeller used to draw the voting district maps in 2017.

The plaintiffs, including the North Carolina chapter of Common Cause and more than 35 individuals, claim in their suit against certain state Republican lawmakers that gerrymandered maps are responsible for their election losses. 

“The simple truth is this: Because of the extreme gerrymandering, Democrats cannot win a majority,” said plaintiffs’ attorney Stanton Jones during opening statements on Monday.

During his opening statements Monday, the Republican legislators’ counsel Phillip Strach argued that it is undemocratic to ask a court of law to rule on a political issue. 

Strach said the defendants will present evidence that the Democrats could have won a majority, or even a supermajority, in the 2018 elections.

The plaintiffs claim the map-drawing process itself was tainted by unlawful partisan and racial motivations.

In a pre-trial hearing Friday, the three-judge panel that is presiding over the case ruled to admit some of a trove of Hofeller’s previously unexamined files, which were turned over by his daughter, who discovered them after his death. The move was disputed by many Republican leaders in the state who believe the files are confidential. 

Hofeller died in August 2018. The voting district map he drew was identical to the one the General Assembly approved and used in 2018 elections and beyond.

On day two of the closely-watched trial Tuesday, expert witness Jowei Chen said he found a questionable formula that had been manually entered into most of the mapmaker’s voting district files. 

The political science expert and associate professor at the University of Michigan told the court that Hofeller had manually entered “%18_ap_blk” into the mapping software’s formula box of nearly every draft. This formula, Chen explained, was used to calculate and track the number of African American citizens of voting age in each district.

Chen said on Tuesday that the district data on Hofeller’s computer was not arranged numerically by district number, but by the percentage of African-American voters in each area from the largest to smallest populations of the demographic. 

In addition, Chen said, Hofeller appears to have systematically analyzed different maps to determine how districts could be drawn in the most favorable way for Republican candidates. 

The 2017 maps, Chen said, were drawn before a guideline banning the use of political and racial data consideration in district-drawing was implemented. In line with plaintiffs’ claims, Chen said that it is unlikely Hofeller complied with the guideline in drawing the maps that were eventually adopted, because they were apparently last touched weeks prior to the guideline’s creation. 

Counsel for the defendants raised several objections on Tuesday but most were overruled with the caveat that Chen’s interpretation of his analysis is understood to be opinion. 

The 2017 maps were drawn to replace racially gerrymandered districts sketched by the Republican majority in 2011, but Chen told judges that he found some of the gerrymandered district maps had been copied and included in new drafts.

After the U.S. Supreme Court in June declined to take up the issue, the plaintiffs brought the case to the Superior Court in Raleigh.

Out of 170 House and Senate districts drawn in 2017 in North Carolina, 95 violate the state constitution’s free speech and association protections, Jones – from the firm Arnold and Porter – said in court Monday. 

Defendants contend that the state’s voting maps are constitutional. Strach said the Democratic party can only blame itself for its failure to muster a majority of the vote in North Carolina. 

Jones said that Democratic candidates in 2018 won more than 50% of the votes for legislative candidates, but Republicans still came out on top in both chambers that year.

%d bloggers like this: