Politics & Government

These maps from a dead GOP operative’s secret files are now on display in court

Maps and charts from the formerly secret personal files of Thomas Hofeller, who drew the lines North Carolina uses to elect members of the state legislature, made an appearance in court Friday.

Maps being challenged as partisan gerrymanders in a trial in Wake County court were drawn by Hofeller in 2017, to replace a previous set of maps — also drawn by Hofeller — from 2011 that were overturned as unconstitutional due to racial gerrymandering.

It was the first time Hofeller’s files had been seen by the general public. Leaders of the Republican-controlled legislature tried to keep the files from being used in the case or shown publicly, but the three-judge panel overseeing the case ruled earlier this month that the files are likely public records, and could be “necessary for the administration of justice in this case.”

Hofeller’s files were handed over to the challengers in this case — who include several individual voters, the North Carolina Democratic Party and the anti-gerrymandering group Common Cause — by Hofeller’s estranged daughter after his death last year. Other of his files are being used in a case challenging the Trump administration’s attempt to add a citizenship question to the Census.

Christopher Cooper, a professor at Western Carolina University and expert witness for the challengers in the gerrymandering case, took the judges, lawyers and members of the public in court Friday through the Hofeller files.

Cooper pointed specifically to two factors in the files that he said showed Hofeller worked hard to make sure the legislative districts would give Republicans an unfair partisan edge.

Hofeller color-coded the state’s political leanings, Cooper said, using a traffic light system of green for Republican areas, yellow for tossup areas, and red for Democratic areas. His color-coding went down to the neighborhood level, broken up into individual voting precincts.

“It shows that partisanship was front and center,” Cooper said.

Exhibits in the trial can be viewed at http://nando.com/540

‘A work of art’

Much of the testimony has focused on North Carolina’s mid-sized cities and their suburbs, like Wilmington and Greensboro, where the challengers say Republican lawmakers artificially enhanced their power by diminishing the political power of local residents through carefully targeted partisan gerrymandering.

Joshua Brown, a High Point Democrat who testified Thursday, questioned why he and his neighbors in that largely Democratic town — which has significantly more black residents than the state average — were put into a state Senate district that’s dominated by rural, Republican-leaning Randolph County.

High Point senate district.JPG
A North Carolina Senate district covering Republican-heavy Randolph County extends north to include mostly Democratic High Point in southwest Guilford County. The map coded Republican-leaning areas in shades of green and Democratic areas in red and pink.

He said it seems the lines were drawn “to reduce the odds of the surrounding districts to elect a Democrat” — in other words, putting High Point into a Randolph County district that was safe enough for Republicans that the incumbent, Sen. Jerry Tillman, could handle the addition of the Democratic-leaning city, instead of putting it in a different district that might have been more of a tossup.

On Friday, Cooper also drew attention to High Point and how Hofeller’s files show he identified exactly which neighborhood-level precincts were likely to vote Democratic or Republican. The resulting map he drew is a jagged line that grabs the Democratic-leaning neighborhoods but avoids the Republican-leaning neighborhoods.

“It’s kind of a work of art, the way it runs around northern High Point,” Cooper said.

Racial targeting?

Earlier this week a different expert witness, University of Michigan professor Jowei Chen, testified that it appears Hofeller also used racial data when drawing these maps.

That would’ve been improper, since the legislature’s rules for the map forbid the use of racial data.

Chen testified that Hofeller’s files contained racial data, although under cross-examination from GOP lawyer Thomas Farr, Chen conceded it’s technically possible Hofeller could have used one hand to cover up part of the screen while drawing the maps so he couldn’t actually see the racial data.

Republican legislative leaders, who are the main defendants in the lawsuit, have also previously said Hofeller’s personal files only reflect his hobbies, and not any official work he was doing for the state.

But the challengers say there are numerous instances of the lines found in Hofeller’s personal files being identical or at least highly similar to the lines the General Assembly ultimately approved.

GOP arguments next week

Attorneys for Senate leader Phil Berger and other GOP leaders have only been able to cross-examine the witnesses chosen by the plaintiffs so far. However, the trial will continue into next week, when Republican lawmakers will be able to mount their defense.

They have previously hinted at some of the arguments they will likely rely on, including a claim that Hofeller’s maps from his personal computer are actually more similar to a set of maps created by Common Cause than the maps the legislature ultimately passed.

They also object to the basis of the lawsuit.

Phil Strach, a lawyer for the GOP leaders, said in his opening arguments Monday that the state constitution says the legislature is in charge of the rules for redistricting, so the courts shouldn’t be able to re-write the rules.

“What the plaintiffs here really want is for this court to undemocratically change the redistricting process and remove it from the legislature,” Strach said.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.