A federal appeals court on Wednesday will hear arguments over whether new Wake County school-board election maps drawn by the General Assembly are legal or an unconstitutional attempt to dilute the impact of voters inside the Raleigh Beltline.
A left-leaning coalition of 13 individuals and two community groups contends that the legislature drew up voting districts of unequal size to weaken the influence of urban voters in order to elect a Republican majority. The plaintiffs contend that U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle erred in March when he dismissed their lawsuit’s contention that the lines were drawn in an arbitrary and capricious way.
“While the North Carolina General Assembly may pass legislation designed to favor their preferred education policies, when engaged in redistricting, what they cannot do is deviate from the one-person, one-vote principle for non-neutral reasons,” Anita Earls, executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition For Social Justice and attorney for the plaintiffs, writes in her brief.
The state contends that the lines meet legal requirements and that the plaintiffs’ charges involve political issues that Boyle correctly dismissed as not under the court’s jurisdiction.
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“The plaintiffs’ remedy, if any, must be found at the ballot box and not at the courthouse,” Senior Deputy Attorney General Alexander Peters writes in the state’s brief.
The oral arguments scheduled before the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., could affect both the leaders of North Carolina’s largest school system and the ability of state legislators to have an impact on local election districts.
In 2011, the Republican majority on the Wake school board that had ended the policy of busing for socioeconomic diversity passed new election lines based on the 2010 Census. Using those lines, Democratic-backed candidates swept all five seats on the ballot that year to regain a majority that they’ve since expanded.
The school board has long been split into nine districts and residents only voted on the member for their district.
In June 2013, the Republican-led General Assembly turned two of the nine seats into regional representation areas. One district, strongly Democratic, includes most of the area of the old Raleigh city limits, inside the 440 Beltline. The other district covers much of suburban Wake and historically has voted Republican.
The legislature also shifted elections to even-numbered years. All nine redrawn election seats will first appear on the November 2016 ballot. Previously, elections were held in odd-numbered years.
The change means residents will vote on the member for both their home district and regional district. Based on past election results, the nine districts could create a 5-4 Republican majority.
In a lawsuit filed in August 2013, the plaintiffs contend that the new lines are unconstitutional, citing a 9.8 percent population difference between the urban and suburban regional districts. The lawsuit contends that the suburban district has fewer voters, part of a plan to lessen Democratic influence.
“This has implications for important policy issues such as socioeconomic diversity in school assignment policies, where new schools are built, and the extent to which the Board will seek to establish neighborhood schools as a criterion for student assignment,” Earls writes.
But the state says the new lines fall within the 10-percent population variance that’s historically allowed for voting districts. Peters also points to prior federal court rulings that recognize that politics are part of the redistricting process.
“Political motivation simply does not present courts with a question they may consider,” Peters writes.