By Tim Elfrink / The Washington Post
In 2017, after the Supreme Court affirmed that North Carolina’s GOP-drawn districts were illegally built around race, the state’s Republican leaders told a federal court they couldn’t quickly craft new boundaries in time for a special election later that year. They hadn’t yet started “the laborious process” of creating maps, they said, and still needed to talk to voters.
The court bought the argument, giving the state GOP nearly another year with a supermajority — an advantage it used to appoint judges and push constitutional amendments.
But a trove of once-secret documents from a strategist behind Republican gerrymandering efforts proves that argument was false, a watchdog group claims in a Thursday court filing. In fact, that strategist, Thomas Hofeller, had already drawn up numerous maps and completed 97 percent of a plan for proposed state Senate districts and 90 percent of a House plan.
The claims are the latest fallout from an extraordinary cache of documents — more than 75,000 files on four hard drives and 18 thumb drives — discovered by Hofeller’s estranged daughter after his death in August. Stephanie Hofeller later turned the documents over to Common Cause, a nonprofit advocacy group battling gerrymandering.
Last month, those files suggested that Hofeller had helped the Trump administration orchestrate the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, while arguing the move would create an electoral advantage for “Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” The Trump administration has denied Hofeller played a role in the change, which is pending before the Supreme Court.
North Carolina GOP officials hit back at Common Cause’s latest allegation, which was first reported by the New York Times. State Rep. David Lewis, who helped lead redistricting efforts, said he had no knowledge of any maps created by Hofeller before those 2017 court hearings.
“It is a complete fabrication that I made any misrepresentation to the court,” he said in a statement. “I had no input on or control of any play maps Dr. Hofeller may have drawn on his personal computer on his own time.”
A federal court in 2016 first ordered the state to redraw its districts and to hold a special election. The Supreme Court upheld that decision in June 2017, but declined to force the special election; instead, it ordered a district court to decide whether new districts could be created in time.
Lewis and others insisted that would be impossible, telling the court that officials hadn’t even started the remapping process until July 2017. Lewis was quizzed directly about Hofeller’s work in a committee hearing on July 26, 2017.
Asked whether there were any maps “drawn by Dr. Hofeller or anybody else that you know of that have not yet been released,” Lewis said, “Not that I know of, sir.”
But Hofeller’s redistricting work was allegedly nearly finished. That claim comes in a letter from Common Cause’s attorney, R. Stanton Jones, filed Thursday in a North Carolina county court.
While Jones doesn’t include any of Hofeller’s original documents, he says a detailed analysis of the files shows the strategist “had not only created numerous iterations of draft maps before July 2017, but that he had substantially completed the 2017 Plans by the end of June 2017.”
That’s not the only detail GOP officials were less than forthcoming about, Jones claims. While state officials promised not to use any racial data while creating new districts, Hofeller’s files actually show the strategist carefully analyzing the racial makeup of every new district. He also had detailed Microsoft Excel files with that information, Jones writes.
North Carolina Republicans would have directly benefited from those alleged falsehoods. In July 2017, a federal court agreed that creating new districts in time for a special election that fall would be too difficult and punted the changes to the following year.
In the meantime, the New York Times reports, the GOP used its veto-proof state House and Senate majorities to appoint right-leaning judges, place six amendments on the ballot and reduce the power of the state’s Democratic governor, Roy Cooper. The party lost its supermajority in the November 2018 elections.
Common Cause’s new filing comes amid a fierce court battle over control of Hofeller’s files, which could produce more damaging claims against Republicans. For years, Hofeller played a key role in guiding GOP plans nationwide to wrest control of statehouses and to create favorable maps for U.S. House seats. He was also an evangelist for keeping that strategy out of the public eye by avoiding email conversations and other public documents. Hofeller died of cancer in August 2018, age 75.
The revelation of Hofeller’s alleged role in the census question apparently alarmed North Carolina Republican legislators, whose lawyer fired off a letter to Jones the day after that news broke last month. The May 31 missive demands that Common Cause return all of Hofeller’s files to his estate and to cease reviewing any information obtained from them.
In response, Jones said the alleged evidence of falsehoods in federal court shows that the Republican demands are simply an “effort to conceal their own wrongdoing.”