Politics & Government

NC legislators’ new district maps in judges’ hands, but debate continues over process

Legislative staff look over redistricting maps during a House committee meeting on Thursday, September 12, 2019 at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, N.C.
Legislative staff look over redistricting maps during a House committee meeting on Thursday, September 12, 2019 at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

At least two North Carolina lawmakers had access to political data during the recent redistricting process, despite a court order banning its use, according to a new legal filing in Wake County Superior Court.

But the brief casts doubt on whether they used the information, and the lawmakers tell The News & Observer they never looked at it.

The News & Observer reported last month that an outside attorney for Republican lawmakers emailed prohibited political data to numerous N.C. House lawmakers and staffers on the first day of court-ordered redistricting. The lawmakers were redrawing many of the North Carolina General Assembly’s House and Senate districts, after a three-judge panel ruled Republicans had drawn previous maps to give themselves an unconstitutionally skewed advantage.

As judges decide whether to accept newly revised maps, or throw them out and enlist an outside expert to redraw them again, the email containing the political data is a major sticking point for Republicans and those challenging the maps.

Two recent legal filings in Wake County Superior Court contain strongly worded political denunciations from Republicans and the maps’ challengers — the North Carolina Democratic Party and the anti-gerrymandering group Common Cause.

In a Sept. 27 court filing, the challengers of the new maps said Republicans in the N.C. House “violated every one of these commands” that the judges put in place for drawing the new maps. That includes the requirement that redistricting must happen in public and without political data.

They asked to throw out about 20 of the maps for N.C. House districts, claiming that House leaders improperly relied on political data and “secretly engaged” the help of Republican gerrymandering experts to help behind the scenes. The challengers didn’t object to any of the new Senate maps.

On Friday, Republican lawmakers submitted a legal brief countering some of the challengers’ claims. They defended their work and said the complaints “are a case of selective outrage that smacks of partisan manipulation.” They said there’s “simply no evidence” they used the data or sought outside help to break the rules and gain an improper political edge.

Now it’s up to the judges to decide who’s right.

Their decision will affect the fast-approaching 2020 elections. Beyond the issue of which maps will be used, if the process lasts more than another month or two, it’s also possible that some of next year’s elections may have to be rescheduled.

Who saw political data?

The data at the center of the debate is a political breakdown of maps created by an expert witness in the gerrymandering trial that Republicans used as a baseline in the redistricting process, The N&O reported.

The GOP filing Friday revealed for the first time that staffers for two lawmakers downloaded prohibited political data that Republican lawyers emailed to legislators and staff on the first day of redistricting.

But the filing notes that the staffers represented one Republican and one Democrat. Neither of the staffers’ legislators appear to have used that data, the filing says.

After the Republican lawyer originally sent the email with the prohibited political data, there was a lengthy break in official redistricting action in the House, The N&O reported.

The challengers said while Republicans claimed the break was innocuous, “it appears likely that (Republicans’) counsel or their consultants were instead organizing and/or reviewing partisanship data.”

But Republicans said Friday that there’s no proof anyone looked at that data, “or even knew how to locate or use the political information buried somewhere within” the emailed data.

Staffers for Democratic Rep. Pricey Harrison and Republican Rep. John Torbett both downloaded the data from the General Assembly, the GOP brief says, but adds it’s possible they never looked at it.

The GOP brief said Harrison, who is one of the more liberal members of the General Assembly, “certainly did not conspire with Republican members.” They don’t believe she used the data toward her own party’s ends, either.

Friday, Harrison told The News & Observer that her legislative assistant downloaded the data, but as soon as Harrison heard about it, she instructed the assistant to delete it.

“I never saw it, never opened it,” she said.

The filing says that Torbett’s wife, who is also his legislative assistant, downloaded the files but never opened them. In an email to The News & Observer, Torbett did not dispute the brief.

The challengers, however, anticipated the response that no one viewed the data inside the General Assembly building. They argue that it can’t conclusively clear the legislature of any misdeeds, “since the email containing the link could have been forwarded and anyone could have clicked on the link and downloaded the files from a network outside of the General Assembly.”

The challengers also said while Republicans randomly selected nonpartisan maps as a baseline, then made tweaks to protect incumbents, they have evidence that the new maps are more Republican-leaning than 95 to 98 percent of those base maps.

Republicans, however, questioned the validity of that argument on Friday as well.

“The General Assembly did not use political data,” they wrote.

For more state government news, listen to Domecast, the politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Megaphone, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.

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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.
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