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Patrick Gannon: Has gerrymandering finally gone too far?

RALEIGH— It’s hard to blame a politician who’s brutally honest.

State Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican, was brutally honest earlier this year w

hen he told a legislative committee that North Carolina’s new congressional districts — mandated by the courts — would be drawn with politics in mind.

Specifically, Lewis, chairman of the House Redistricting Committee, told fellow legislators that “partisan advantage” was one of seven criteria used in the drawing of the new districts, which were used in this month’s special congressional primary elections.

Here are the exact words of that criterion: “The partisan makeup of the congressional delegation under the enacted plan is 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats. The Committee shall make reasonable efforts to construct districts in the 2016 Contingent Congressional Plan to maintain the current partisan makeup of North Carolina’s congressional delegation.”

In other words, Republicans wanted to ensure in the drawing of new districts that they would continue their domination of North Carolina’s congressional delegation.

Lewis wasn’t bashful or coy about it.

“I acknowledge freely that this will be a political gerrymander, which is not against the law,” Lewis told a redistricting committee meeting to discuss the newly drawn districts.

It was an open admission that the General Assembly picks its voters, rather than voters picking their representatives in government. You could almost hear jaws drop during the committee hearing as Lewis’ words came out.

I immediately thought that I’d see or hear those words again. It didn’t take long.

Early this month, a federal, three-judge panel upheld the new congressional districts, which were approved by the General Assembly in February. Plaintiffs in the case against the districts deemed them an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. The panel rejected that claim, and in its decision said the court’s “hands appear to be tied” because there is “no judicially discernible and manageable standards for adjudicating political gerrymandering.”

The judges cited a previous U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court declared that politics is a traditional criterion used in redistricting and that it is constitutional “so long as it does not go too far.” The three-judge panel said in its decision that it is “presently obscure what ‘too far’ means,” so it couldn’t evaluate the partisan gerrymander claim.

But the judges didn’t stop there. In their decision, the judges quoted Lewis’ admissions about the use of politics in drawing the new districts.

“The Court is very troubled by these representations. …The Supreme Court has recognized that partisan gerrymanders ‘[are incompatible] with democratic principles,’” the decision stated.

So how do we know when partisan gerrymandering has gone too far? The Supreme Court left open the possibility that a suitable standard might be identified in future litigation.

Hopefully, that future will come soon. When a state lawmaker openly admits that legislators are using politics as one of the main criteria in drawing maps, is that too far?

Patrick Gannon is the editor of The Insider State Government News Service. Reach him at pgannon@ncinsider.com.

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