The fate of newly-created seats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners is now in the hands of a federal judge, as candidates are lining up to run for them.
The General Assembly in April created new district maps for the Wake board of commissioners, prompting a lawsuit by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and others who say the maps are unfair.
Meanwhile, five districts – including two new ones – are up for election next year, and residents can file to run for them until noon Monday. Four candidates have filed to run for the two new seats already.
After two days of testimony, attorneys on Friday concluded their arguments on the constitutionality of election maps. Plaintiffs reiterated their contention that the new districts dilute the influence of urban and black voters by packing them into one district.
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“Our political battles should be fought on a level playing field,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the coalition.
Earls asked U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III to throw out the new districts and allow the forthcoming election to commence under the old maps. Dever said he would consider the timing of the case in his ruling. He said Thursday that he hopes to rule by the end of the month.
“I can’t tell you a date,” he said.
Critics of the new districts claim the General Assembly’s move was politically motivated. Democrats won every board of commissioners race in the 2014 election, gaining a majority and leaving the board without a Republican for the first time in many years.
The General Assembly expanded the board from seven seats to nine, creating two new “super” districts that together cover the entire county. District A is urban and District B is rural, encompassing nearly every Raleigh suburb as it snakes around Wake’s border.
The legislature also ended countywide elections and, in 2016, requires the board of commissioners districts to align with school board districts passed in 2013. The plaintiffs seeking to throw out the new board of commissioners districts are challenging the school board redistricting as well.
Republicans who crafted the new districts said they aimed to give rural areas better representation on the board of commissioners. However, they did not appear in court to defend themselves.
The Wake County Board of Elections, which didn’t advocate for the new maps, was legally obligated to defend them.
Charles Marshall, an attorney at Brooks Pierce in Raleigh and former policy adviser for Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, argued that redistricting is accepted as a political process – the courts have ruled that districts can be designed for partisan advantage. But Marshall said plaintiffs in the Wake case lacked evidence to show that lawmakers intended to suppress votes by overloading districts with members of one particular party or race.
Among other points, Earls referenced an email sent by former Wake County GOP chairwoman Donna Williams to one of the Republican legislators. In it, Williams told the legislator, Neil Hunt, that she didn’t see how the new districts would help Republicans win five board seats, Earls said.
The email was presented as evidence lawmakers intended to create overly partisan districts.
Proof that black voters were targeted by state lawmakers, Earls said, lies in a simulation performed by Jowei Chen, a political geography expert and associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan.
Chen, who plaintiffs are compensating for his time, produced 500 district maps that minimized population differences, kept precincts whole and kept geographic regions compact – without “racially packing” districts as much as the General Assembly did. African-Americans make up 54 percent of the new District 4, which covers Southeast Raleigh and parts of eastern Wake County.
“It’s reaching out to pick up high concentrations of African-Americans,” Earls said of District 4’s shape. Courts have ruled against shaping districts based on race.