The U.S. Justice Department approved North Carolina's new voting maps Tuesday night, taking away a major roadblock to next year's elections but leaving open the door to new lawsuits.
The Obama administration's decision handed a victory to the state's Republican mapmakers.
"I feel like a tremendous weight has been lifted," said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who led the House redistricting effort. "It's a strong statement that our plans met their objectives, which was to follow the law."
The Justice Department approved - or pre-cleared - new legislative and congressional voting districts that most analysts say would give Republicans an electoral edge for at least a decade. It was the first time in more than a century that GOP lawmakers drew voting maps.
Democrats and other critics of the plans are still poised to sue. A coalition of N.C. groups - including the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and Democracy North Carolina - have said they plan to challenge the plans.
"Make no mistake about it, this Republican redistricting plan will resegregate North Carolina," Democratic Party Chair David Parker said. "The Republican maps pack minorities so heavily into so few districts that they split counties, precincts and communities all across North Carolina. The shapes of the resulting districts make a mockery of the redistricting process, and the Republicans should be ashamed of themselves."
North Carolina has had a checkered history of redistricting. Since 1981, the Justice Department has rejected plans eight times. Legal challenges delayed N.C. elections in 1998 and 2002. North Carolina's 12th Congressional District was the subject of four decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Republicans say they're confident that quick federal approval makes any challenge less likely to succeed.
"Justice's responsibility is to make sure minority voters are protected under the Voting Rights Act," said Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican and chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee. "... They validated the fact that minority voters are protected under our fair and legal maps."
A technical glitch
The federal approval came hours after the General Assembly acknowledged flaws in their maps, which Democrats were quick to jump on, saying they are the by-product of GOP plans that split voting precincts.
More than 220 areas of the state were left out of the redistricting laws for state House, state Senate and Congressional districts.
Rucho said he knew that some census blocks were not assigned to districts, but said it wasn't a big deal, and he didn't believe the problem would hold up federal approval.
There were no problems with the maps and voter information the state sent to the Justice Department, he said.
"The maps they looked at - the maps that were ratified - had no holes, no incongruities, no nothing of what people are saying," he said.
In a memo to Rucho and Lewis on Tuesday, legislative staff explained the problems as a "technical issue" that omitted census blocks in the legislative, congressional, Wake Superior Court and Greene County Commissioner districts.
The problem was with the software code that translated the maps into bill language, according to the memo. The problems were located in some areas where voting precincts were split between two or more districts.
Legislative Democrats voted against the redistricting maps. The state Democratic Party and independent groups are preparing to sue.
In a joint statement, House Minority Leader Joe Hackney and Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt called the problem a "redistricting failure."
"Republicans split apart black and white voters in an attempt to create voter confusion," they said.
"They have already succeeded. In their rush to desegregate communities and pull apart neighborhoods with their redistricting plans, we have now learned that they neglected to account for thousands of people. Their plan to split voting precincts proved too complicated even for their outside experts and sophisticated software to handle properly."
Rucho said a staff mistake has "unfortunately, become political."
The software code flaw has been identified and corrected, according to the staff memo.
Legislators are scheduled to return to work Monday, but there was no word whether they will correct the redistricting flaws next week.