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Courts adopt new House maps that favor Democrats in PA, NC

Candidates could begin filing this week for May 17 primaries

A new map adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would split the district of GOP Rep. Fred Keller, who spoke at a rally in Montoursville with then-President Donald Trump in 2019, into two other Republican-held seats.
A new map adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court would split the district of GOP Rep. Fred Keller, who spoke at a rally in Montoursville with then-President Donald Trump in 2019, into two other Republican-held seats. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

State court decisions Wednesday in Pennsylvania and North Carolina set the boundaries for elections this fall in more than 30 congressional districts, with the new maps favoring Democrats.

Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court selected a congressional map where President Joe Biden would have won nine of the state’s 17 congressional districts, partially by setting up a potential intraparty Republican primary. Biden won the state by 1.2 percentage points in 2020. Aside from Florida, Pennsylvania was the largest state that had not finalized a congressional map as of Wednesday.

Additionally, a three-judge panel in North Carolina selected a map drawn by a court-designated expert in a ruling Wednesday, rejecting one drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature. The North Carolina map will only cover this fall’s elections, allowing redistricting to occur again next year. 

Republican leaders in the state House said they planned to appeal the congressional map, which they described as “drawn in an unknown, black-box manner.” The ruling could delay candidate filing meant to start Thursday.

Candidates can begin filing in Pennsylvania on Friday. Both Pennsylvania and North Caroline have May 17 primaries.

Wednesday’s rulings are the latest in a series of state court decisions that have so far been more impactful than federal litigation in determining the shape of maps before this fall’s midterms. 

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed Alabama to proceed with a congressional map that allegedly discriminates against Black voters rather than delay a May primary.

In addition to the rulings in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, Ohio’s Supreme Court has ordered a second redraw of the state’s congressional map.

Pennsylvania litigation

Pennsylvania’s court took up the case after litigants argued the state government’s split control would prevent the parties from finalizing a new map. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is governor and Republicans control the state legislature.

In January, the legislature passed a new congressional map, which Wolf vetoed.

In Wednesday’s decision, the court accepted one of the plaintiffs’ plans after selecting from several offered by the litigants.

Pennsylvania lost one of the 18 House seats it has now through reapportionment, and the new map accounted for relative population loss in the middle of the state by splitting Republican Rep. Fred Keller’s district into seats held by Republican Reps. Dan Meuser and Glenn “GT” Thompson.

The Pennsylvania map has seven seats in the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia regions that went to Biden by 5 percentage points or more. Another six seats spread across the state went to former President Donald Trump by 5 percentage points or more. 

The 1st District in the Philadelphia suburbs, currently held by Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, will remain one of the state’s most competitive. So will districts held by Democratic Reps. Susan Wild and Matt Cartwright. The district currently held by Rep. Conor Lamb, who has launched a campaign for the state’s open Senate seat, would also remain competitive.

A federal court paused similar stalemate litigation while the state court case played out. Louisiana and Wisconsin also have stalemate litigation outstanding.

The litigation is separate from a successful lawsuit arguing against partisan gerrymandering that resulted in a new Pennsylvania congressional map for the 2018 election.

NC finished, for now

North Carolina picked up a seat through reapportionment, and the map approved by a three-judge panel Wednesday would only carry through this fall’s elections.

The three-judge panel in Wake County, which previously upheld the original map drawn by the state legislature before being reversed by the state Supreme Court, adopted a plan authored by a court-appointed expert.

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore called the ruling “nothing short of egregious” as he promised to appeal.

“The trial court’s decision to impose a map drawn by anyone other than the legislature is simply unconstitutional and an affront to every North Carolina voter whose representation would be determined by unelected, partisan activists,” he said in a statement.

A remedial plan passed by the legislature, which would have favored Republicans in 10 or 11 of the state’s 14 House districts, had a partisan skew that “is not explained by the political geography of North Carolina,” the judicial panel said.  The panel adopted its own plan instead that would have a partisan split closer to the state’s overall divide, which broke 50-49 for Trump over Biden in 2020.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield’s historically Black district, of which the Black population was reduced in the state’s first map, would shift eastward under the new plan. The plan would include communities like Chowan and Pasquotank counties that have significant Black populations.

Additionally, Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn’s district in the western portion of the state would become more friendly to him. Cawthorn has been running in a more solidly Republican district drawn by the earlier map. 

In the 4-3 ruling earlier this month, the North Carolina Supreme Court  found the previous congressional map violated the state constitution by unfairly favoring Republicans. The ruling mandated the state to use a statistical analysis showing that the district breakdown under the new lines would more closely resemble the state’s overall electoral results.

Experts expect more state court litigation in similar cases this cycle following the success in both states and a 2019 Supreme Court case, Rucho v. Common Cause, which held federal courts would not hear political gerrymandering claims.

A state court in Ohio ordered new maps to be drawn in advance of this fall’s midterms. Ohio’s redistricting commission is now on its second round of map drawing after the state Supreme Court rejected a first attempt. The state now faces a Mar. 4 deadline for a new map in advance of the state’s May primary.

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