RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) – Friday’s windup of a lengthy partisan gerrymandering trial in North Carolina leaves the future of legislative district lines in limbo following two weeks of conflicting testimony.
The day after judges scrapped admittedly flawed testimony delivered on behalf of Republican legislators by an expert witness, rival parties waived closing arguments with ten minutes remaining on the courthouse clock.
If plaintiffs in the case —North Carolina’s chapter of Common Cause, the North Carolina Democratic Party and more than 30 individuals— succeed in their claims against state GOP lawmakers, new district maps could be ordered redrawn before the 2020 elections.
Political scientist Douglas Johnson spent hours combating claims made by the plaintiffs’ witnesses that Hofeller’s draft maps were essentially the same as the maps enacted by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2017.
During a heated cross-examination on Thursday, he admitted that his study was flawed and the judges agreed to toss out a large part of Johnson’s testimony.
In 2018, Democratic candidates won a majority of the votes statewide, but Republicans won a majority of seats in the state House and in the state Senate. The map for the elections was drawn in 2017 by Thomas Hofeller to replace 2011 maps that were found in court to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered.
Challengers and expert witnesses who testified on their behalf in the trial that wrapped up Friday say Hofeller used racial and prior elections data to carefully craft maps that artificially produce Republican majorities.
Counsel representing the defendant legislators, including Phillip Strach, say the challengers are trying to “undemocratically change the redistricting process and remove it from the legislature,” siding with a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision not to get involved in a state political matter as a court of law.
The decision on whether North Carolina’s legislative maps were gerrymandered in 2017 in Republicans’ favor to the point of being unconstitutional lies in the hands of Democratic Judges Paul Ridgeway and Alma Hinton, and Republican Judge Joseph Crosswhite.
“Political extremism or polarization is pretty clearly not linked to political redistricting at all,” said Thomas Brunell, an expert witness who testified Friday on behalf of the defendants.
Brunell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said North Carolina has one of the most restrictive processes when it comes to redistricting.
During questioning conducted by Mark Brayden representing the legislators, Brunell said that strict state-based county grouping requirements naturally disadvantage Democrats during elections because they are geographically clustered in cities within a state that experiences a great urban-rural political divide.
Many witnesses on the GOP lawmakers’ side of the suit have repeatedly claimed that restrictions like this limited the 2017 state House and Senate mapmaker’s creativity when it came to designing partisan districts.
Any mathematical simulation comparing maps cannot “answer the question of what is too much politics,” Brunell said.
But, Brunell ended up contradicting a cornerstone of his side’s argument that people can still be represented by leaders in other parties through equal constituent services when Elisabeth Theodore, an attorney representing Common Cause, led the cross-examination on Friday.
In a book he wrote years ago, Brunell said, “a voter who votes for a losing candidate will end up with no representation.”
When Theodore quoted the work, “I could have been more cautious,” was Brunell’s response.
He agreed with Theodore Friday that the way in which representatives vote on the major issues of the day is more critical to the notion of representing someone through other constituent services.
Throughout the two-week trial, expert witnesses for the defendants worked to punch holes in the mathematical conclusions reached by Common Cause’s witnesses by attempting to demonstrate bias in their chosen variables.
And attorneys who represent Common Cause repeatedly conjured opposing expert’s ghosts of testimonies past.
Brunell used the same method that expert witness Jowei Chen did, who Brunell claimed to be inaccurate, when Brunell represented Republicans in a Nevada redistricting case.
During that case, Brunell concluded numbers could prove that gerrymanders are extreme.
But that was a just “beauty pageant,” Brunell later clarified—an opportunity for lawmakers on either side of the isle to flaunt their own favored map designs from which judges might pick to enact or consider.
Earlier in the day, defendants’ expert Michael Barber, a political scientist from Brigham Young University, was cross examined by John Cella who represents Common Cause and other plaintiffs.
Barber said the National Republican Congressional Committee paid him to testify during the trial. He contested the variables used in an analysis expert witness Cooper conducted. It is unknown when the presiding three-judge-panel will announce a ruling, but the deadline for counsel to submit any leftover briefs is Aug. 7.