Wake County

Judge says Wake must use old school board, county commissioner election maps

From left, Wake County Superintendent of Schools James Merrill,Wake County Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, Chair of the Wake County School Board Christine Kushner, Chair of the Wake County Commissioners James West and School Board member Tom Benton, listen during a joint meeting between the Wake Co. Commissioners and the Wake Co. School Board held at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Jan. 26, 2015.
From left, Wake County Superintendent of Schools James Merrill,Wake County Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, Chair of the Wake County School Board Christine Kushner, Chair of the Wake County Commissioners James West and School Board member Tom Benton, listen during a joint meeting between the Wake Co. Commissioners and the Wake Co. School Board held at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Jan. 26, 2015. News & Observer file photo

Wake County voters will likely elect county commissioners and school board members in November using district lines that were in place for most elections since 2011 – not the lines introduced by state lawmakers that were ruled unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge James C. Dever III on Tuesday instructed the Wake County Board of Elections to put three county commissioner seats and all nine school board seats on the ballot this fall.

A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on July 1 ruled the district lines created by the General Assembly violated equal representation – or “one person, one vote” principles in the U.S. Constitution – and gave unfair advantages to voters in suburban districts.

The court later rejected a request to reconsider the ruling, putting the onus back on Dever to tell state lawmakers and elections officials whether there will be a Nov. 8 election and which maps will be used.

The Wake elections board told Dever on Monday that apart from moving forward with the unconstitutional maps, using the old maps would be the most feasible option.

“This is a victory for basic fairness,” said Earl C. Johnson, a former president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “It is not the American way to change the rules in the middle of the game because you are losing. That is what the General Assembly did when they passed these unconstitutional districts.”

In 2013, the General Assembly redrew the lines for all nine Wake school board seats, turning two into regional districts with each covering about half the county. In 2015, state legislators changed the Wake commissioner lines to match those used by the school board.

The decision to revert to the old maps marks a victory for left-leaning groups who argued that the Republican-led legislature redrew the maps in an attempt to manufacture a conservative influence over one of the nation’s most populous counties.

In recent years, Democrats won every seat on the county commission and gained a comfortable majority on the school board. The legislature’s now-nullified maps put many current commissioners and school board members in the same districts.

This is a victory for basic fairness. It is not the American way to change the rules in the middle of the game because you are losing. That is what the General Assembly did when they passed these unconstitutional districts.

Earl C. Johnson, plaintiff and former president of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association

In November, all Wake voters can vote for county commissioner candidates running in districts 4, 5 and 6. Voters will choose school board candidates running in their district.

“The court finds that this remedy is the most equitable remedy among the constitutional plans presented for timely and orderly elections for the School Board,” Dever wrote in his ruling.

Legislative leaders, who are not defendants in the case, said they plan to appeal the decision.

“While we believe the plans wrongly set aside by the 4th Circuit are fair, legal and constitutional and will continue to appeal that decision to ensure geographic diversity and fair representation for all Wake County voters, we appreciate that the trial court restored the opportunity for voters to cast their ballots in November,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement.

It’s unclear whether the Wake County Board of Elections, which is listed as the defendant, will appeal.

“As of this time, our board has not indicated to me there was an intent to appeal,” said Gary Sims, Wake’s elections director. The three-member board is made up of two Republicans and one Democrat.

Also unclear is the process for candidate filing. Wake is seeking guidance from the state elections board on when to open a filing period for candidates who want to run, Sims said.

“We will ask for it to begin as soon as possible,” he said.

Before the primary election in March, 18 candidates had filed to run for commissioner and school board seats.

Future elections uncertain

While plaintiffs celebrated Tuesday’s decision, some worried what Dever’s order could mean for the future elections.

The order applies only to this year’s election. If the legislature doesn’t implement new school board and county commissioner districts before 2018, the court will be in a position to again decide how to elect those seats, said Anita Earls, executive director for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Earls’ group represents the plaintiffs who challenged the legislature’s maps.

The plaintiffs believe election-mapping is outside the court’s responsibility, she said.

“The judge can’t order (the legislature) to pass a plan. So if it doesn’t pass anything, the court would be in a position to again decide how to elect those seats,” Earls said. “We think the court overstepped its bounds here.”

Earls’ group is also troubled by Dever’s order that all of this year’s winners serve two-year terms instead of a typical four-year term. The order sets the stage for all school board and county commissioner seats to be up for election in 2018.

“For continuity, it would be good to have staggered terms,” Earls said.

School board member Christine Kushner agreed.

“I don’t relish running this year and again in two years, but we’ll see what happens,” Kushner said. “I think having the 5-4 stagger (elections every two years) is important for stability.”

Time, money lost

In the meantime, Dever’s ruling leaves some wondering what will become of “super district” candidates.

In county commissioner super district A, incumbent Democrat Caroline Sullivan faced a challenge from Republican Craig Ralph. Sullivan currently represents District 4.

In super district B, Morrisville Town Councilwoman and Democrat Vicki Scroggins-Johnson was set to square off against Republican John Adcock. Both races are now void.

Ralph declined to comment. But Adcock and Scroggins-Johnson, who each beat a former commissioner in the spring primaries, left the door open for future political bids. Together, they raised more than $50,000, according to campaign finance reports.

“It’s disappointing,” Adcock said. “There was a lot of sweat equity invested not just by me but by my family and our supporters.”

He hopes Wake election maps will eventually feature some at-large super districts.

“We believe in some type of district-only and at-large representation,” Adcock said. “Wake County’s too big to have at-large votes for all the districts.”

Paul A. Specht: 919-829-4870, @AndySpecht

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