North Carolina Republicans have begun to release details of their schedule for drawing new boundaries to correct legislative districts found unconstitutional by the federal courts.
But they have not presented any maps to the public yet.
The General Assembly, which met for what was expected to be a one-day legislative session on Thursday, is tentatively set to vote on new maps on Aug. 24 or 25, according to Rep. David Lewis, the state House member shepherding the redistricting process.
Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, and Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Mitchell County who leads the Senate redistricting committee, announced this week that they are seeking public comments Friday at a 10:30 a.m. hearing on the criteria the committee should use to draw new maps.
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The meeting comes four days after a panel of three federal judges issued an order calling for new maps by Sept. 1. The judges – Catherine Eagles, a Barack Obama appointee to the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina; Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee to the same district; and James Wynn, a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge appointed by President Obama – ruled out the possibility of special elections this year.
But the judges let lawmakers know that they wanted maps “enacted as quickly as possible to protect the rights of North Carolina citizens and to minimize any chilling effect on political participation attributable to the continued absence of a districting plan in the face of a finding of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering.” They set a deadline of Sept. 1.
In August 2016, the federal judges ruled that 28 of North Carolina’s 170 legislative districts were drawn to pack black voters into the unconstitutional districts, weakening their overall influence in elections.
Republicans have contended in court that they drew the districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act. But in a lawsuit filed in 2015 by Sandra Little Covington of Fayetteville and 26 other North Carolina voters, the challengers successfully persuaded the federal judges on the panel and a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court that nine state Senate districts and 19 state House districts violated the U.S. Constitution.
Lawmakers plan to show the proposed maps and hold public hearings in the days leading up to the vote, Lewis said. Locations of the hearings have not been released.
In addition to the meeting on Friday, Lewis and Hise announced another joint redistricting committee on Aug. 10 at 10 a.m. to adopt the criteria under which the maps will be drawn.
The resolution for closing the session on Thursday calls for lawmakers to return to session on Aug. 18 to consider issues that could include new Senate and House maps, proposed new state judicial and prosecutorial districts and bills related to election law. Lawmakers are expected to briefly convene on that day, but they have said they won’t have votes on the House or Senate floor.
“While we had originally planned to set aside additional time to receive comments from North Carolinians and hold a statewide public hearing on criteria across the state, we have said all along that we will comply with the federal court’s order,” Lewis and Hise said in a joint statement earlier this week. “Moving forward with this process over the next week will help us comply with the court’s deadline.”
Republicans dominate both chambers of the General Assembly, holding 74 of the 120 House seats and 35 of the 50 Senate seats. Their numbers allow them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes.
Republican legislative leaders have tapped Thomas Hofeller, a veteran mapmaker for the party, to help with the redrawing of districts. Hofeller was behind the 2011 maps, which are at the root of the court case that has forced the drawing of corrective maps.
With legislators back at the drawing board, questions arose in court about how many other districts would need to be changed to correct the problems with the 28 districts.
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and Edwin Speas, a Raleigh attorney, argued for the challengers that correcting the maps did not mean that lawmakers had to set out anew as they did in 2011 to tweak maps to reflect population shifts in the 2010 census. They argued to keep districts as closely related to county lines as possible.
Phil Strach, a Raleigh attorney representing legislative leaders, told the judges that to correct the maps, the lawmakers might need to make more changes than the challengers prefer.
Staff writer Lynn Bonner contributed to this report.
What: The Joint Select Committee on Redistricting meets.
When: 10:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 4.
Where: Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building, 300 N. Salisbury St., Raleigh