The Battle Over the Files of a Gerrymandering Mastermind

At the heart of a decisive court ruling on Tuesday striking down North Carolina’s state legislative maps was evidence culled from the computer backups of the man who drew them: Thomas B. Hofeller, the Republican strategist and master of gerrymandering, who died last year.

Documents from the backups, which surfaced after his death, were also central to the legal battle over adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census. An enormous stash of digital files, covering Mr. Hofeller’s work in almost every state, has yet to be examined.

But in a state court in Raleigh, N.C., another courtroom battle is underway. Its aim is to ensure that those files are never publicly scrutinized.

Republican political figures filed a flurry of motions on Friday in the same court that issued the gerrymandering decision, all seeking to seal or destroy the 75,000-plus files that contain more than 100,000 documents and thousands of maps. Among them were a South Carolina lawyer, Dalton L. Oldham, who was a partner with Mr. Hofeller in a consultancy, Geographic Strategies L.L.C., that advised the Republican Party and party leaders nationwide on redistricting.

Mr. Oldham argues that Mr. Hofeller’s digital archive contains confidential work for clients like the Republican National Committee and that it includes trade secrets and information covered by lawyer-client privilege that should be erased or kept secret.

“Disclosure of these documents would reveal a major political party’s internal, proprietary and highly confidential communications and strategy,” a brief submitted by his lawyers stated.

A lawyer for Mr. Oldham, Robert N. Hunter Jr., declined to comment on the dispute, citing North Carolina legal guidelines. But a senior official at Common Cause North Carolina, the public-interest organizing group that helped bring the successful suit against the state’s legislative maps, argued that the public interest demanded that Mr. Hofeller’s digital archive be open to scrutiny.

“We’ve already seen that these files have been instrumental in exposing lies around the effort to add a citizenship question to the census and around subverting a court’s order to redraw gerrymandered lines,” Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director for the group, said in an interview.

“The Hofeller files are important because they’re the only thing that will allow the American people to know the truth behind the efforts to rig redistricting and elections,” she added. “They have to be made public.”

Whatever the merits of that argument, the decision to disclose the files or keep them private carries potentially weighty political consequences, said David Daley, whose 2016 book on gerrymandering helped shape a national debate on the practice.

The few documents released so far “have transformed the national conversation about the citizenship question and helped overturn a set of statewide maps in North Carolina,” he said, adding, “There are tens of thousands of documents left to go. Think of the impact.”

The Republican National Committee, Geographic Strategies’ principal client from the firm’s creation in 2011 to July 2018, filed a similar motion to keep the files invisible. So did Republican leaders in North Carolina’s State Legislature, who hired Mr. Hofeller in 2011 and 2017 to draw the maps that the state court on Tuesday struck down as a blatantly unconstitutional gerrymander.

But in Nueces County, Tex., where Mr. Hofeller had proffered redistricting advice to Republicans, a Democratic county judge elected in the November midterms filed a motion asking the court to preserve files relating to the county — and to send her copies.

On Wednesday, the State House scheduled a meeting of its redistricting committee for Monday to begin drawing new maps of legislative districts. The court gave the legislature until Sept. 18 to draft and approve the maps.

ImageMr. Hofeller, a Republican strategist and master of gerrymandering, died a year ago.
Creditvia C-Span

A set of court-imposed guidelines ensures that the committee meeting and those that follow it will be unlike any redistricting process in memory. Under the rules, the mapmakers cannot consider past election results when drawing boundaries; must follow accepted practices, like keeping districts compact; cannot hire outside experts without court approval; and cannot use the gerrymandered maps as starting points for drawing new ones. The court also ordered the lawmakers to do their work in full public view, with a screen showing the map work visible to both legislators and the public.

None of those guidelines were followed when the legislature last drew district maps in 2011 and 2017.

Precisely what Mr. Hofeller’s files contain remains a mystery. But one brief submitted by Mr. Oldham’s lawyers does not mince words about their sensitivity. Among them, the lawyers said, are legal analyses, strategy manuals prepared for national and state Republican officials, “an accumulation of highly honed redistricting maps” and written exchanges with party officials.

At issue are four hard drives and 18 thumb drives, comprising years of backups of Mr. Hofeller’s computer, that came to public attention only by the oddest of coincidences. Stephanie Hofeller, Mr. Hofeller’s estranged daughter, found the drives while visiting her mother after the strategist’s death in August 2018. While searching for a lawyer to handle estate issues, Ms. Hofeller mentioned the backups in passing to an official at Common Cause North Carolina.

The state’s Republican leaders have excoriated Ms. Hofeller over her actions. “Dr. Hofeller, of course, would not have willingly handed all his files to his political and legal opponents,” they wrote in a brief. “Most of the documents were not Mrs. Hofeller’s to give. Dr. Hofeller created and possessed them as an agent for his clients, so even he lacked the authority to turn them over without their authorization.”

Lawyers for Common Cause subpoenaed the backups early this year and discovered political bombshells: Documents in the North Carolina gerrymandering lawsuit appeared to indicate that Republican leaders had lied to a federal court in 2017 about their reliance on racial demographics to create the legislative map that was invalidated on Tuesday. (The leaders have denied the accusations; the state court called their explanation “not credible.”)

Other documents tied Mr. Hofeller directly to the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, and offered a potential motive: reducing the population count in predominantly Democratic areas with many noncitizens, and thus increasing Republican representation. The Supreme Court rejected the citizenship question in June.

Republican figures have been fighting to keep the Hofeller backups confidential since spring, but the effort gained steam in July, when lawyers for Mr. Oldham asked the court to seal the backups to stop plaintiffs in the gerrymandering lawsuit from “continuing to publish Geographic Strategies’ confidential trade secrets to the world.” (In practice, lawyers in the gerrymandering case disclosed only a few of Hofeller documents during that trial and in the census lawsuit.)

The court rejected efforts to keep documents from the backups from being introduced in the gerrymandering trial, but it did agree to allow both Republican legislative leaders in North Carolina and Geographic Strategies to review copies of the backups. The results were arresting: 195,887 redistricting map files and 100,658 documents, including 17,533 relating to Geographic Strategies, some 1,800 involving groups affiliated with the Republican Party and nearly 20,000 containing personal Hofeller family information, according to an analysis by Geographic Strategies experts.

Other documents related to private work Mr. Hofeller or Mr. Oldham performed for clients in North Carolina, Virginia, Arizona, Missouri and three counties in Texas and New York.

The dispute has opened a window into the redistricting work of Mr. Hofeller, a man so secretive that he regularly cautioned clients to leave no paper trail documenting their mapmaking.

Mr. Hofeller and Mr. Oldham first worked together in the 1980s and early ’90s, when they did redistricting work at the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. They reunited at the Republican National Committee during the 2000 and 2010 redistricting cycles.

After Republicans captured an array of state legislatures in the 2010 midterm elections — a strategy devised by Mr. Hofeller to give Republicans control of state and congressional political maps drawn using 2010 census data — they formed Geographic Strategies and sold their expertise to the Republican National Committee and the Republican State Leadership Committee under contract. Working with the committees, Geographic Strategies gave legal and mapmaking advice to the national party and to Republicans in 46 states.

“Clients would email maps to our office, and we would perform an intense legal and demographic review and attempt to provide an appropriate legal strategy that would meet our clients’ political requirements,” Mr. Oldham stated in an affidavit submitted on Friday. That included gerrymandering issues, “one person, one vote” requirements and compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

The court has ordered the parties in the dispute to submit their final briefs by Friday.

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