Key expert witness on Day 2 of testimony in partisan gerrymandering trial
A key witness in North Carolina’s partisan gerrymandering trial continues to testify today about how the state’s 2017 legislative maps are considered extreme partisan outliers and the mapmaker singularly focused on partisanship while drawing them.
Jowei Chen, an expert for the plaintiffs in Common Cause v. Lewis, presented analysis Tuesday that Thomas Hofeller — the deceased mapmaker behind the 2017 voting districts — predominantly considered partisan advantage during the redistricting process and did not follow the publicly adopted criteria.
Chen — who has expertise in geographic information systems, political geography, redistricting and legislative districts — testified about a series of computer-simulated maps he created to establish a baseline with which to compare Hofeller’s draft maps and the legislature’s final enacted maps.
Hofeller’s daughter turned over his digital data to the plaintiffs in the case after his death. Most of the files are still involved in litigation about whether they can be used, but the three-judge panel in the Wake County Superior Court presiding over Common Cause has allowed 35 specific relevant documents to be used at this trial.
In addition to analyzing the maps, Chen answered four questions about whether partisan intent dominated in the redistricting process, what the effect of the final enacted plans was on a number of legislative races, if Hofeller used the adopted redistricting criteria and the effect of the final plans on individual House and Senate districts.
He said that partisan intent did dominate and it had the effect of producing fewer Democratic districts than would have emerged if Hofeller’s map drawing would have followed the traditional redistricting criteria set by the legislature during a public process.
Chen is animated when he talks about his work, and frequently was asked to slow down Tuesday by the court reporter. His testimony was straight-forward and extremely detailed. Questioning often delved deep into the weeds of redistricting and mapmaking.
He also presented evidence about how Hofeller finished drafting most of the maps in late June before the legislative redistricting process ever began and that many of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were placed into enacted districts that were considered to be partisan outliers compared to computer-simulated plans that followed the traditional adopted criteria.
Other analyses Chen went over included his findings from overlapping Hofeller’s draft maps with the final enacted maps. He said Hofeller assigned 97.6 percent of Census blocks containing 95.6 percent of the total North Carolina population into the draft Senate map before the redistricting process took place and 90.9 percent of Census blocks containing 88.2 percent of the total state population in the House plan.
He also showed through screenshots from Hofeller’s mapmaking program how he copied his draft maps to eventually become the final maps.
Finally, Chen presented findings that showed the mapmaker used race as part of the redistricting process while creating the draft maps.
Today, Chen only testified under direct examination for a few minutes before Thomas Farr, an attorney for the legislative defendants, objected to the admission of his and other expert reports into evidence and the Hofeller files as a whole.
Farr, who was nominated by President Donald Trump over the past two years to a federal judgeship, told the judges that courts frequently don’t admit expert reports and instead rely on only testimony. The plaintiffs, he added, had plenty of time to make their case with Chen.
He also said the legislative defendants believed all the files from Hofeller’s computer should have been eliminated. He objected to the use of the files on grounds that they weren’t relevant to the case.
“The issue in this case is whether the maps adopted by the General Assembly are legal,” he said. “All this testimony about Dr Hofeller is a sideshow.”
Farr pointed out that there was no evidence legislative leaders Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Madison) ever saw Hofeller’s computer or files, and that the documents were “highly, highly prejudicial.”
Daniel Jacobson, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that the expert reports should be admitted based on a “residual exception” and said they would be helpful for the judges to better understand the case.
He described the Hofeller files Farr objected to as “smoking gun evidence.”
“I cannot think of evidence that would be more relevant to a partisan gerrymandering case,” he added.
He said if someone hires an individual to do a job — as is the case with the lawmakers and Hofeller — that person’s activities and state of mind were relevant. He also argued that the Hofeller files were public record.
Judge Paul Ridgeway delivered the panel’s ruling on the issues. They admitted the expert reports to corroborate testimony but said they would make a decision at a later time about whether to consider them on a substantive basis.
Ridgeway said they also found the Hofeller files to be relevant and admissible. They conducted a balancing test, he said, and ruled the probative purpose of documents outweighed the prejudice to the legislative defendants.
Farr began Chen’s cross examination after the ruling. He went over his background and asked specific questions about how he conducted his analyses.
He also asked some hypothetical questions about Hofeller’s work. In one, he asked if it was possible the mapmaker could have looked at the race of voters after drawing the maps as opposed to during to check his work. Chen responded that, technically, it would have been possible that Hofeller put his hand over the computer screen and blinded himself to it, but that it was open during the drawing process.
Farr is currently continuing cross examination. For live updates during the trial, follow reporter Melissa Boughton on Twitter.
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