Republican Lawmakers Challenge Claims of Bias in NC Gerrymandering Case

Republican state Sens. Dan Soucek, left, and Brent Jackson, right, review historical maps during The Senate Redistricting Committee for the 2016 Extra Session in the Legislative Office Building at the N.C. General Assembly, in Raleigh, N.C., on Feb. 16, 2016. (Corey Lowenstein/The News & Observer via AP, File)

RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) – Witnesses for North Carolina GOP lawmakers on Wednesday said democracy advocates’ experts misused numbers during testimony in the case to determine if Republicans violated the state’s constitution by unfairly gerrymandering state political districts in their party’s favor.

Gerrymandering is a political strategy that has been employed for decades by whatever party holds majority control at a given time.

Voting districts designed to advantage one party over another during elections have not been historically ruled unconstitutional, unless the maps were proved in court to dilute the voices of minority voters, did not contain districts roughly equal in population or if they violated state-specific laws.

In North Carolina, the state’s Common Cause chapter and Democratic Party are challenging current district maps that were enacted by a Republican-led General Assembly in 2017.

The plaintiffs in one of many gerrymandering-related cases nationwide are self-proclaimed democracy advocates who have continued to urge for the past eight days of trial that a three-judge-panel in Raleigh rule the 2017 districts unconstitutional under the Tarheel State’s own charter.

Stanton Jones, counsel for the groups who brought the case challenging political redistricting measures by the 2017 Republican-led General Assembly, said it is nearly impossible for a Democratic majority to be elected, due to state legislative maps he said were designed to secure a Republican majority.

On Wednesday, State House Majority Leader John Bell of the 10th District disputed the claims made on Jones’ side over the past week.

Bell said he tried to stay out of the redistricting conversation for as long as possible, and did not want to testify specifically about the issue on Wednesday.

After a line of questioning conducted by the defendant legislators’ counsel on Wednesday, Bell said that the quality of candidates, incumbency advantages and local issues could explain the large amount of Republican-held districts in the state after the 2018 midterm elections.

Eastern North Carolina, especially the 4th State House District, was “ground zero” for nuisance lawsuits over the hog industry, Bell said. Opposition to hog farm nuisance lawsuits was a major factor in 2018 Republican candidates winning some legislative districts where agriculture is the center of life.

Bell cited about 35 districts he believes could be competitive for Democrats in the 202o elections, including the Senate district of defendant David Lewis, who oversaw 2017 redistricting.

Lewis and eleven other lawmakers employed executive privilege in order to not testify during the trial, according to the judges.

Bell, who said bi-partisan efforts comprise the majority of bills made in the state, said the electability of candidates in his region of North Carolina is also attributable to how they publicly pursued disaster relief efforts after flooding from Hurricane Matthew and Florence swallowed some communities whole last year.

Popularity in the community, Bell said, improves a candidate’s chances of being a “quality” recruit, which, according to the defendants, can outweigh barriers partisan gerrymandering may erect.

Karen Owen, an assistant professor of political science and the director of the Thomas B. Murphy Center for Public Service at the University of West Georgia, testified on Tuesday.

Owen expressed a similar opinion to Bell’s, telling the judges that many state districts are still competitive—meaning either major party could win a state House or Senate seat— and that constituents on all political spectrums are being served equally by those in the Legislature.

She said Tuesday that she did not interview past or current legislators, or any North Carolina voters during her research on the matter. She said political science in this context leans toward behavioral rather than numerical studies.

Throughout the trial, mathematicians, economists and professors who served witnesses from opposing sides have disputed the statistical variables used by rivals to reach conflicting conclusions.

Mathematicians Jowei Chen, Wesley Pegden and Jonathan Mattingly all reached the conclusion through entirely different assumptions and statistical means, that the 2017 maps were outliers in contrast to random maps constrained by the same federal and state-specific legal constraints. The 2017 maps they said were handmade outliers with Republican bias, concerning how favorable the districts are to Republican candidates.

“You have to look at people. You have to look at issues. You have to look at the mood,” Bell said, restating a previous statement on the current political atmosphere in the state and country. “You have to look at incumbency. You have to look at what’s going on.”

Numbers don’t quite cut it, Bell explained, when it comes to human constituents affected by various local and national issues.

“You’re pulling statistics, but if I’ve got a great candidate in that seat, I can win it and maintain it. If I have a horrible candidate in that seat, then we have problems,” Rep. Bell said.

Chen, an expert witness for plaintiffs in Common Cause V. Lewis, testified last week about his analysis of files discovered on deceased, prolific district mapmaker’s computer.

Chen testified he found data in screenshots given to him by plaintiffs from Thomas Hofeller’s computer that showed the mapmaker most likely used both partisan and racial data to decide where North Carolina residents can vote.

Hofeller’s district map, Chen said, was identical to the one approved by the General Assembly to guide 2018 elections and beyond.

Douglas R. Johnson, a longtime expert in the mapping software that was used by Hofeller to draft his proposed 2011-2017 legislative district maps, said Wednesday Chen misunderstood what he saw on the Republican strategist’s desktop.

He said the formulas Chen described as having been used by Hofeller to calculate and sort racial data alongside partisan data for districts could have been copied from a previous map by happenstance.

In addition, Hofeller’s drafted map isn’t the same map that the 2017 General Assembly adopted, Johnson said after he explained his own statistical analysis in which he created maps to see if he could draw districts more heavily partisan in Republican’s favor than the current state elections map drawn in 2017.

He did.

“At this point, the definition of gerrymander is any map the speaker doesn’t like,” Johnson later said during cross examination when plaintiff’s attorney, Jacobsen, asked why the expert’s map simulations ignored the state’s constitutional rules, but followed federal law when he drew them.

During cross-examination, Johnson admitted that his similar expert evidence had been written off by judges as inappropriate in all of the four redistricting cases he has testified in previously, including cases in California.

The U.S. Supreme Court in June decided not to interfere with the state’s decision on whether to redraw state election districts.

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