Jurisprudence

Newly Discovered Files Suggest GOP Lawmakers Lied in Court About Racial Gerrymandering to Stop An Election

Protesters attends a rally against partisan gerrymandering on March 26, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Protesters attends a rally against partisan gerrymandering on March 26, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The latest bombshell from the formerly secret files of the GOP’s top gerrymandering guru emerged on Thursday, and it’s astounding: Voting rights advocates claim to have evidence that North Carolina Republican lawmakers repeatedly lied to a federal court, and to the public, in a successful effort to delay a special election that threatened their legislative supermajority.

Republicans across the country employed Thomas Hofeller for years to draw gerrymanders that would dilute Democratic votes. When he died in 2018, he left behind 18 thumb drives and four hard drives containing 75,000 files—a vast trove of information detailing his work for the GOP, including damning revelations. His estranged daughter turned over the material to Common Cause, a voting rights advocacy group, in February.

The newest discovery from the files pertains to Covington v. North Carolina, a challenge to Republicans’ racial gerrymander of state legislative districts. In 2016, a federal district court ordered the legislature to draw new maps and hold a special election after finding the map had been illegally gerrymandered along racial lines.

The Supreme Court agreed that the maps were unlawful, but sent the case back to district court to resolve how quickly Republican lawmakers could draw new maps without excessively disrupting the state’s elections. GOP legislators insisted that they had not yet prepared any maps and would need ample time to do so. So the district court declined to order the special election, allowing Republicans to maintain their supermajority for another year and further manipulate state elections. (The supermajority was broken in 2018, the next election under the new maps.)

According to Common Cause, these representations to the district court were a lie. Republican legislative leaders told the court that they had not “start[ed] the laborious process of redistricting earlier” than July 2017, and that they could only “begin the process of compiling a record in July 2017 with a goal of enacting new plans by the end of the year.” These lawmakers claimed they needed more time to “engage in internal discussions about the design of remedial districts” and “prepare draft remedial plans.” This effectively convinced the court to scrap the special election.

Further, at a legislative hearing, a Democratic lawmakers explicitly asked Rep. David Lewis, who led the redistricting effort, whether there was “anything that has been drawn by Dr. Hofeller or anybody else that you know of that have not yet been released.” Lewis responded: “Not that I know of, sir.” He also stated: “I have not yet drawn maps nor have I directed that maps be drawn, nor am I aware of any other entity operating in conjunction with the leadership that has drawn maps.”

The Hofeller files tell a different story. According to a new legal filing, these materials reveal Hofeller had completed more than 97 percent of the new Senate plan and 90 percent of the new House plan by June 2017. In other words, Republicans allegedly lied to the federal district court. In July 2017, GOP lawmakers claimed that they had prepared no maps and therefore could not draw new districts in time for a special election—when, in reality, those maps were nearly finished.

Finally, and perhaps most damningly, Common Cause accused Republicans of lying about their use of racial data in redistricting. Because it was fixing a racial gerrymander, the district court ordered that data “identifying the race of individuals or voters shall not be used in the drawing of legislative districts in the 2017 House and Senate plans.” Republicans told the court that “data regarding the race of voters was not used in the drawing of the districts, and, in fact, was not even loaded into the computer used by the map drawer to construct the districts.” They added that “we have not had and do not have racial data on any of these districts” and “there was no racial data reviewed in the preparation of this map.”

The Hofeller files reveal, Common Cause wrote, “that none of the above statements were true.” In fact, his computer seems to have had data “regarding the racial composition of the proposed districts for each and every iteration of his draft maps.” Hofeller even displayed the black voting age population in some draft maps, and “had racial data on the draft districts in Excel spreadsheets.” As Republicans swore to a court that they would not incorporate racial data—not even look at such data—their mapmaker was, the evidence shows, doing exactly that.

Common Cause disclosed this information on Thursday to combat Republican attempts to seize the Hofeller files. GOP attorneys have tried to force the group to return all of Hofeller’s materials—which it obtained lawfully—by claiming work-product privilege over the documents. Common Cause argues that it may keep this proof of “false statements” because it is “highly relevant” to its ongoing fight against the legislative gerrymander.

Meanwhile, Republicans have argued that Hofeller drew these secret maps “out of personal interest in his spare time.” They also argue that Hofeller’s daughter, Stephanie Hofeller Lizon, took advantage of her mother, Kathy, in order to obtain the files. (Kathy readily agreed to let her daughter keep the materials, but Republicans assert that she may be incompetent, though no court has found that she is.) GOP attorneys are fighting tooth and nail to keep the remaining Hofeller files out of court and the public eye.

But they are failing, because Common Cause seems to have every right to keep and use the vast majority of the files. For years, Republicans worked in secret to erode North Carolina’s democracy with Hofeller’s help. Now that his work is in the hands of his opponents, the GOP is beginning to face consequences for its actions. And Thursday’s revelation—which could result in court sanctions for Republican lawmakers who allegedly lied to the court—will not be the last smoking gun from the Hofeller files.

Common Cause is currently asking a state court to invalidate the maps that Republicans drew in 2017, when GOP legislators allegedly lied about their use of racial data. The group is seeking new, fairer districts for the 2020 election. With the Hofeller files in hand, its case is getting stronger by the day.