Last Thursday, Thomas Hofeller died of cancer at the age of 75. In the headline of its obituary this weekend, The Hill called Hofeller a “pioneer of modern redistricting.” This is a very peculiar way to describe a man whose crowning professional achievement was diluting the black vote in a former Jim Crow state.
As the Hill notes, Hofeller was the Republican National Committee’s redistricting chairman for nearly two decades. After leaving for the USDA during the Bush administration, he became a redistricting consultant for the national party, and after 2010, helped states where Republicans had newfound majorities cement those majorities. His biggest project was North Carolina.
That year, North Carolina Republicans fairly won both houses of the state legislature for the first time in over a century. The next year, they hired Hofeller to help them in redistricting, including the state’s 13 Congressional districts. “Redistricting is like an election in reverse. It’s a great event,” Hofeller once said. “Usually the voters get to pick the politicians. In redistricting, the politicians get to pick the voters.”
North Carolina is a deeply purple state; in five out of the last seven presidential elections, it’s been decided by five points or less. Before the 2010 midterms, the Democrats had eight members of Congress to the Republicans’ five; in that year’s wave, that margin was reduced to 7–6. The maps Hofeller helped the Republicans draw in 2011, on the other hand, were designed to give the GOP a permanent 10–3 advantage. In the next election in 2012, Republicans turned a 7–6 Democratic split into a 9–4 Republican one, despite the fact that Democrats received a majority of all ballots cast for House candidates in the state.
The way Hofeller and the North Carolina GOP did this was to cram the state’s Democratic voters into three Congressional districts, and many of the state’s black voters into two of those, the First and the 12th. Although Republicans have steadfastly denied directly using race as the basis for redistricting, their intent to rig elections in their favor was explicit. “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats,” North Carolina House redistricting chairman David Lewis said at the time that the legislature redrew the districts, “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with eleven Republicans and two Democrats.”
Here’s how a federal judge described Hofeller’s congressional maps in a 2016 opinion striking them down:
There is strong evidence that race was the only nonnegotiable criterion and that traditional redistricting principles were subordinated to race. In fact, the overwhelming evidence in this case shows that a (black voting-age population) percentage floor, or a racial quota, was established in both CD 1 and CD 12. And, that floor could not be compromised.
All of the original 2011 maps that Hofeller helped the North Carolina GOP draw—the Congressional districts and both chambers of the state legislature—were eventually ruled by federal courts to be unconstitutional and having been drawn on the basis of race. They were replaced with marginally different maps and a new round of litigation. Last summer, the Republican-controlled North Carolina General Assembly was forced to redraw some of their legislative districts; to do so, they hired Tom Hofeller. (A Supreme Court decision earlier this year allowed some of the districts redrawn by Republicans to go through, while others redrawn by “special master” Nathan Persily were upheld.)
It’s difficult to know the full extent of gerrymandering that Hofeller had his hands in, partly because he insisted on not using email for issues of any importance. But in at least one state, one where Democrats once ushered in segregation by a violent coup, Hofeller—who described himself as a moderate Republican and got along well with Democrats, according to The Hill—helped make right-wing Republican majorities nearly impossible to overcome by weakening the black vote relative to the white one.