RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) – With the fate of North Carolina’s voting districts on the line, objections to evidence from a deceased mapmaker’s files dominated the third day of a trial on claims of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering by Republican lawmakers.
A vacationer traversing the stretch from South Charlotte toward North Carolina’s coast might tire before reaching Bladen County —the opposite end of the same congressional district.
The state’s 9th Congressional District is currently in the throes of a new election ordered by a state board after ballot fraud allegations mounted last year against a Republican operative, but the focus of a trial in Raleigh this week is on all of the state’s ornately shaped General Assembly voting districts and the data used to draw them in 2017.
The North Carolina Democratic Party, advocacy group Common Cause and more than 30 voters are challenging district maps adopted by state lawmakers that were allegedly guided by partisanship and racial data.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declined in June to take up the issue, the plaintiffs brought the case to the Superior Court in Raleigh. They say 95 of the 170 state House and Senate districts drawn two years ago violate the North Carolina Constitution’s free speech and association protections.
A three-judge panel will determine whether deceased mapmaker and Republican strategist Thomas Hofeller used partisan and racial data to draw the state voting districts, and whether those lines were illegally intended to artificially churn out Republican majorities in the General Assembly.
“The simple truth is this: Because of the extreme gerrymandering, Democrats cannot win a majority,” the plaintiffs’ attorney Stanton Jones of the firm Arnold and Porter said during opening statements on Monday.
Counsel for the legislative defendants, including Thomas Farr with Ogletree Deakins, raised several objections Wednesday over Common Cause’s use and interpretation of evidence found in Hofeller’s computer files as well as some evidence derived from state Representative David Lewis, R-Harnett, because neither of them will be present to defend themselves.
Farr – whose nomination to a federal court by President Donald Trump was pulled back just before his confirmation vote last year over concerns about his record on issues related to race – called the matter a “sideshow” and said there is no evidence that Lewis or anyone else in the Legislature saw the files allegedly containing racial and partisan data.
The 2017 map that Hofeller, who died last year, drafted for the Republican-led General Assembly was designed to replace districts drawn by the GOP in 2011 that were found to be racially gerrymandered.
An expert witness for the plaintiffs, Jowei Chen, testified Tuesday that an analysis of Hofeller’s computer history shows the mapmaker arranged district data by the percentage of African-American voters in each area.
With counties divided and clustered into multiple districts, Chen said during cross-examination by Farr on Wednesday that Hofeller was “exhibiting a near-singular focus on the partisanship” of these districts.
He said the deceased mapmaker appeared to have tracked racial data and organized districts in his mapping software by the number of African-American voters instead of by district number.
Hofeller’s daughter shared his emails with Common Cause and during a pretrial hearing July 2 – over protest by many Republicans – the three-judge panel presiding over the case allowed most of his emails to be introduced as evidence at trial.
On Wednesday, after several objections, the judges again cleared the use of the files as corroborating evidence, adding that despite the defendants’ argument, the files are directly relevant to the case.
In the politically divided Tar Heel State, these maps could be redrawn in time to affect the 2020 election if the groups who sued prevail.
Judges Paul Ridgeway, Joseph N. Crosswhite and Alma C. Hinton are presiding over the trial that is expected to last about two weeks.
During his opening statements Monday, another one of the Republican legislators’ attorneys, Phillip Strach argued that it is undemocratic to take a districting decision out of the hands of lawmakers by asking a court to rule on the political issue.
The losing parties are expected to appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court.