The Supreme Court’s decision on Wisconsin’s partisan districts could further complicate matters in North Carolina, too—specifically, for its U.S. House districts. Those districts were redrawn by Republican lawmakers before the 2016 election after a district court declared the lines unconstitutional on the grounds of racial gerrymandering.
But the state Democratic Party is now suing to block the new maps as well: It alleges that the same officials who created the racially gerrymandered districts replaced them with unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. If the Supreme Court says that partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional in Wisconsin, that case will become powerful precedent in sorting out North Carolina’s congressional districts.
If the Supreme Court finds Wisconsin’s and North Carolina’s state legislative districts unconstitutional, that would mean three consecutive state governments apiece enacted laws using unlawful districts. Perhaps most remarkably, those laws include voting measures recently passed by both states—ones that themselves seem to have partisan, if not racial, animus.
The North Carolina voting law was one of the most expansive in the country, and included strict voter ID measures and a rollback of early voting and same-day registration, provisions that were found by a state review to benefit minority voters the most. Those same provisions were found unconstitutional by the Fourth Circuit court this year—the 2016 election in the state was conducted under the previous voting laws—and the Supreme Court will likely see a challenge to the Fourth Circuit’s decision in the next year as well. In Wisconsin, a less expansive voter ID law was declared constitutional this year but was in effect for the 2016 election. An appeal by the American Civil Liberties Union to block that law was denied before the election, but it will likely appear in courts again.
These legal circumstances create a unique quandary for residents of North Carolina and Wisconsin, who may change districts multiple times in a few years, face conflicting reports of special elections, and may have had their ability to vote threatened by unconstitutional governments. Wisconsin Republicans may have gained power through unlawful partisan advantage, and then passed on that advantage via voting laws. And according to Li, if the Supreme Court upholds North Carolina’s state legislative districts as racial gerrymanders, that decision would mean that Republicans given an illegal edge based on racial discrimination passed laws to further that advantage.
"North Carolina is in a bit of an unprecedented situation,” Li said. “After Republicans took control in 2010, they were very aggressive in maximizing their advantage, primarily by disadvantaging African Americans and other communities of color. The situation really is quite unprecedented because not only are the maps problematic, but you also have a number of restrictive voting laws in place. ... I can't think of another situation where you've had this exact dynamic."