Groups challenging NC redistricting seek delay of 2014 primary elections

ablythe@newsobserver.comJanuary 3, 2014 

— Groups unhappy with the North Carolina legislative and congressional districts drawn three years ago by the General Assembly have asked the state Supreme Court to delay this year’s primary elections.

In a request for a temporary injunction filed with the state’s highest court Thursday, attorneys for Democratic voters and civil rights groups argued that it would be disruptive to proceed with the established election cycle while constitutional questions linger about the 2011 maps.

The filing period for candidates seeking seats in the state General Assembly and the U.S. House is set to open Feb. 10 and close on Feb. 28. Primary elections are set for May 6.

“Sufficient time may not now exist for this Court to properly resolve the significant federal and state constitutional questions presented in this appeal,” the request for relief states.

The attorneys argue that a delay of the filing period and primaries “until prospective candidates know with certainty the configuration of the election districts would be significantly less disruptive to candidates and election officials and less confusing to the public.”

They point to a court order issued in 2002, when there was a similar challenge of legislative and congressional maps drawn by the General Assembly. The 2002 order halted the election process after it began, shifting the May primary elections to mid-September of that year.

On Monday, state Supreme Court justices are scheduled to hear arguments in Raleigh about the legislative and congressional districts adopted by the Republican legislature two years ago. The districts are intended to be used through the 2020 elections.

At issue is a unanimous ruling in July by a three-member panel of N.C. Superior Court judges. The panel validated the districts, rejecting an argument by Democratic voters and civil rights organizations that some of the districts were racially gerrymandered to weaken the influence of black voters.

In their appeal of that decision, the NAACP, Democrats and voter-rights organizations have raised questions about the panel’s interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and the North Carolina Constitution.

Redrawn lines

Redistricting occurs every 10 years based on the national census. In 2010, Republicans took control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century and led the redrawing of lines.

Though the new maps were immediately challenged after they were drawn in 2011, the districts were used in the 2012 elections and have been shown to favor Republicans.

The GOP expanded its majority in the state legislature in the 2012 elections. In the House, Republicans picked up nine seats and now dominate Democrats 77-43. The Senate added two Republican members, and the GOP holds a 33-17 advantage.

Republicans also were successful in expanding their majority at the congressional level, taking nine of the state’s 13 U.S. House seats though Democrats carried a higher percentage of the congressional votes.

Republican leaders contend they followed the law when developing the new districts, and they cite sections of the three-judge panel’s ruling to underscore their contentions.

‘Pre-cleared’

The maps that cleared the General Assembly were reviewed and “pre-cleared’ by the U.S. Justice Department under a procedure laid out by the federal Voting Rights Act. The U.S. Justice Department, whose leadership was appointed by Democratic President Barack Obama, found that the maps did not hurt the ability of minorities to elect candidates of their choice.

The three-judge panel – Judges Paul Ridgeway of Wake County, Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County and Alma Hinton of Halifax County – found that the maps did not “pack” districts as defined by previous appellate court rulings. Lawmakers, the judges ruled, had a “limited degree of leeway” in applying past judicial decisions.

The courts have allowed parties to draw districts for political advantage but prohibit racial gerrymandering.

Districts challenged

The Democratic voters and others challenged 30 districts – nine in the state Senate, 18 in the state House and three congressional districts. They complained that Republicans packed black voters into districts where they had already been successful in electing their candidates of choice despite being in the minority.

By creating new districts that had a majority of black voters in those same regions, mapmakers drew the lines to reduce the overall political power of black voters, the challengers’ attorneys argued.

They likened it to creating housing or school districts that packed black residents or students into certain districts – segregation that violates federal law.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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