GREENSBORO, N.C. — It's only a few yards from political science professor Derick Smith's office at North Carolina A&T State University to the campus library, but to get there he has to switch congressional districts.
As part of its effort to help Republicans win 10 of the state's 13 seats in the House of Representatives in 2016, the state legislature split the largest of the nation's historically black colleges down the middle, ensuring that its students could not influence the outcome for either seat. An invisible line runs down Laurel Street, separating the Aggie Village dormitories from the bookstore, ticket office and mail center.
"It's literally like two different campuses around election time," says student body president Delaney Vandergrift.
The Supreme Court has spent a near-record 255 days this term trying to hammer out its decision on partisan gerrymandering — the designing of election districts for political advantage. Rulings on one-sided maps from Wisconsin and Maryland are due this month — possibly as soon as Thursday and could all but decide the North Carolina case.
But if the justices don't reach a final conclusion on whether blatant partisanship is permissible or unconstitutional, North Carolina's congressional map looms as the next test. Here, the facts aren't even in dispute: State lawmakers in the relatively "purple" state, which swings between Democrats and Republicans in statewide elections, declared their intentions on camera.
The challenge by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters to the state-drawn map — one that gives Republicans 10 of 13 seats because, state Rep. David Lewis famously said, he couldn’t squeeze out an 11th — may offer the cleanest test for the court's consideration.
“North Carolina is kind of a poster child for why there needs to be some rule,” says Allison Riggs, senior staff attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
In a blockbuster term that has careened from sports betting to same-sex wedding cakes — and is likely to conclude with a decision on President Trump's immigration travel ban — nothing is as important to the future of democracy as the way politicians pick their voters.
All the attention remains on Wisconsin, where Republicans drew themselves a favorable state Assembly map, and Maryland, where Democrats designed a congressional map to give them seven of the state's eight seats. But unlike North Carolina, those cases have procedural problems that could cause the high court to punt rather than issue a landmark decision.
So dissatisfied were some justices with their options during the Maryland oral argument in March that Justice Stephen Breyer suggested they could come back next fall and examine all three state maps again. “You could have a blackboard and have everyone's theory on it,” he said, seemingly alone in relishing the thought.
North Carolina's story would take the longest to tell. The state's history of racial and partisan gerrymandering dates back a quarter-century, and both parties have chalk on their hands.
For years, the 12th Congressional District snaked so narrowly along Interstate 85, picking up black voters who invariably voted Democratic, that it became the national model for grotesque gerrymandering. When it ultimately was struck down on racial grounds, Republicans happily substituted a standard the Supreme Court has yet to admonish: politics.
"We want to make clear that to the extent we are going to use political data in drawing this map, it is to gain partisan advantage,” Lewis said at the time. “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
The result looked a lot better, but it had the same devastating effect on Democrats. They were “packed” into Charlotte, blocking the chance for two Democratic seats there, and “cracked” in Greensboro and Asheville to assure Republican victories.
Nowhere was the deed so dastardly, challengers say, as at North Carolina A&T. Here, about 10,000 students were neatly divided between the 6th and 13th congressional districts, ensuring that most would be voting for losing candidates.
"It doesn't matter how many are registered to vote. It doesn't matter how many students vote," Vandergrift, 20, says. "It's just demoralizing."
Republicans in control
The challenges against the election maps in Wisconsin, Maryland, North Carolina and several other states offer the Supreme Court an opportunity to do something it has never done before: declare a blatantly partisan gerrymander unconstitutional.
Across the nation, thousands of state legislators and hundreds of members of Congress are elected in districts drawn to favor the party that controls the chalk — or in this case, the sophisticated computer programs. That has largely favored Republicans during the past decade.
Thus it was that in October, Justice Anthony Kennedy — the court's swing vote — appeared to side with the liberal justices against Wisconsin's state Assembly map, drawn to assure GOP control throughout the decade.
But by March, Kennedy sounded less assured when confronted with Maryland's congressional map — despite Chief Justice John Roberts' quip that its 6th District meandered from farm country near West Virginia to the "hobby farms" of wealthy Potomac, a suburb of Washington, D.C.
In between, Pennsylvania's Supreme Court struck down that state's congressional map and drew another for this fall's elections, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene. All the other battles, including those in Ohio and Michigan, will affect the 2020 elections at the earliest.
At stake in many states, including North Carolina through a separate court challenge, are state legislative districts as well as those for Congress. The statehouse challenges are particularly important, because the lawmakers elected in 2020 will get to draw lines for the next decade.
Republicans believe they are on solid ground using politics to draw the maps, which the Supreme Court has never said is verboten.
“It’s clear from the founding that this was intended to be a political process," says Jason Torchinsky, general counsel for the National Republican Redistricting Trust. "The Framers of the Constitution were engaged in political gerrymandering themselves.”
But during the Wisconsin and Maryland oral arguments, Kennedy asked the state's lawyers whether it would be OK if the state required partisan lines. When Roberts noted that Maryland's map was contained in a statute passed by the legislature, state Solicitor General Steven Sullivan said it was just a description of "metes and bounds."
"So if you hide the evidence of what you're doing, then you're going to prevail?" Kennedy asked, drawing laughter.
'Blue dot in sea of red'
North Carolina didn't hide what it was doing in 2016, and to the state's Democrats and African Americans, it was no laughing matter. One expert told a trial court last year that the workmanship exhibited the most partisan bias of any congressional map in the country.
Nevertheless, Republican lawmakers defend their plan's "clean, compact and competitive maps," in the words of Mark Coggins, policy adviser to Rep. Lewis, who chaired the redistricting effort.
"We are confident that the most recent maps, which split fewer precincts and counties than any in recent North Carolina history, will be upheld in one way or another by the courts," Coggins says.
That's not how folks see it in the predominantly liberal city of Greensboro, pop. 287,000 — "a blue dot in a sea of red," says Democratic consultant Tim Moreland.
Walter Salinger, a League of Women Voters board member, says the legislature "cut the urban population up into pie pieces, the larger pieces of which are rural."
North Carolina A&T — "Aggieland" — became the dividing line between two such slices of congressional pie. Nine dormitories sit in one district, six in another.
To Smith, the political science professor active in the state NAACP and Poor People's Campaign, the new maps came as no surprise in a state that had one of the nation's most restrictive voter identification laws struck down in 2016.
"We've been dealing with the gerrymander since the '90s," he says. "North Carolina's probably the most gerrymandered state at all levels.
"The one thing they all seem to have in common," Smith says, "is that race is being used as a proxy for partisan advantage."
Betting on sports: Supreme Court strikes down ban on sports betting in victory for New Jersey
Vetting immigrants: Supreme Court shows support for President Trump's immigration travel ban