State lawmakers approved voting districts for congressional and legislative races Wednesday night that could set the state's political course and shape policy debates for the next 10 years.
The final plans for the 13 congressional and 170 legislative districts will next face scrutiny for compliance with federal law and likely court challenges.
Democrats protested that the districts, some with bizarre shapes, divide cities and neighborhoods so black and white voters can be segregated.
"You know what you're doing," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat. "You know those black voters normally vote Democratic. You weaken their influence in districts where other Democrats run."
Republicans explained their plans are based on court rulings and federal law. Districts designed to elect black representatives were drawn to include voting populations that are more than 50 percent African-American.
"We drew all of these in compliance with the law as we understood it to be," said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican.
North Carolina has a long history of redistricting lawsuits. All debates on redistricting are recorded by court reporters. Republican responses to questions and criticism were restrained. They repeatedly described their maps as "fair and legal."
Gov. Bev Perdue cannot veto redistricting plans, but all three maps must be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court panel before they can be used in the 2012 elections.
Redistricting, controlled by the dominant party, is important to determining political power for the next 10 years. The new congressional map has three strong Democratic districts, including the 4th District, which includes Triangle counties, the 12th District, that stretches from Mecklenburg County to Guilford and the 1st District, which runs from Durham and stretches into Wayne, Craven and Pasquotank counties.
According to a political analyst, 10 of the new districts would favor Republican candidates. The state now has seven Democrats and six Republicans in the U.S. House.
Debate centered on the 4th Congressional District, where Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price of Chapel Hill is the incumbent.
The new 4th District would meander through seven counties in the proposed plan and thread through Harnett and Cumberland counties. Durham would be divided among four congressional districts.
GOP legislators said they drew a Democratic district, but Democrats said they went through the region picking out black voters with no thought as to whether the communities have much in common.
Rep. Larry Hall, a Durham Democrat, said the congressional plan penalizes Durham. "You have to use a Ouija board to figure out who your representative is," he said.
Democrats said Republicans misapplied the law by packing minority voters into districts where there is no history of racially polarized voting.
Places like Raleigh are becoming more integrated, said Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, so Republicans had to cut districts into strange shapes "solely for the purpose of ferreting out black people, putting them all in a district."
Blue said he knew some of the senators voted for plans that don't reflect their beliefs.
"Every vote ought to mean something," he said. "Your vote ought to reflect what you actually believe. Many of you are casting votes for something you don't believe in."
Staff writer Craig Jarvis contributed.
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