NC voters' lawsuits claim congressional Districts 1 and 12 are racially gerrymandered

ablythe@newsobserver.comNovember 15, 2013 

New congressional districts have resulted in six U.S. House members representing the Triangle. Durham County alone has four representatives.

Three North Carolina voters have mounted new accusations of racial gerrymandering in a federal lawsuit challenging the shapes of Congressional Districts 1 and 12.

Republicans at the helm of both N.C. General Assembly chambers led the redrawing of legislative and congressional districts in 2011. Voter rights organizations challenged the new maps in state court, and a three-judge panel upheld the new boundaries in July, though the case remains on appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court.

In October, David Harris, a registered voter in Durham County, filed a federal lawsuit with Christine Bowser and Samuel Love, both registered voters from Mecklenburg County, seeking an invalidation of the two districts, which are represented by Democrats – G.K. Butterfield in District 1 and Mel Watt in District 12.

Their challenge came after a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June opened a new legal front for challenging the maps.

The 1st Congressional District, according to the lawsuit, is “akin to a Rorschach inkblot” that weaves through 24 counties, containing only five whole counties. The district is mostly in the northeastern part of the state and includes Durham, Elizabeth City, Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount, Goldsboro and New Bern.

The length of the district’s perimeter, according to the lawsuit, is 1,319 miles – “almost precisely the distance from Chapel Hill to Austin, Texas.”

The architects of the 2011 redistricting, the three voters contend, “ignored the common rural and agricultural interests” of Coastal Plain residents that federal courts have previously recognized. Durham, the newly added urban center, constitutes 25 percent of the district’s population.

The 12th Congressional District is 120 miles long but only 20 miles wide at its widest part. The district includes large portions of Charlotte and Greensboro connected by a thin strip – “averaging only a few miles wide” – that follows Interstate 85.

“A person traveling on Interstate 85 between the two cities would exit the district multiple times, as the district’s boundaries zig and zag to encircle African-American communities,” the federal lawsuit contends.

The impact on black voters

Critics of the 2011 Republican-led redistricting contend the map lines were drawn to concentrate black voters in districts that reduced their overall political power.

In the lawsuit under appeal in state court, the plaintiffs challenged 30 districts – nine in the state Senate, 18 in the state House and three congressional districts. They complained that Republicans created many majority-minority districts in regions where black voters had elected their favored candidates in coalitions with whites for decades.

The mapmakers said creating black-majority districts in some areas of the state was a lawful way to prevent the state from subjecting itself to legal claims under the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to protect minority voters.

The judges wrote several times in their ruling that the General Assembly “had a strong basis in evidence,” including testimony from oral arguments this year, other court cases, previous election results and map and census data, to draw the maps the way it did.

Federal ruling adds to complexity

In June, though, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that further complicates the case.

The country’s highest court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and freed North Carolina and eight other primarily Southern states from having to get pre-clearance before changing election laws.

Until then, 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties fell under that oversight, and the plaintiffs in the new federal lawsuit argue that lawmakers in the state had used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as “a justification to racially gerrymander Congressional districts.”

Earlier this year, attorneys for the Republican-led mapmakers argued that the legal challenge in state court was not about racial gerrymandering. They contended that those challenging the maps were interested in creating legislative and congressional maps in which black voters could “elect white Democrats.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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