A federal appeals court ruling Friday nullified Wake County school board and county commissioner election districts, plunging the county into uncertainty about whether voters will even go to the polls in November for those local races.
Shortly after a 2-1 ruling by a U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel found the districts unconstitutional, legislators scrambled to redraw new maps before the session closed. But by early evening, Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, said legislators likely had too little time to craft new lines.
“I had hoped that we would be able to do it, but it’s a lot harder than simply making a tweak,” said Lewis, who leads the House elections committee. He spoke in the hallway outside the House chambers as it remained in session.
What the districts look like comes amid a long fight over whether Democrats or Republicans control the two Wake County boards. In recent years, both boards shifted from Republican leadership to Democratic oversight. So the GOP-led state legislature redrew the Wake school board districts in 2013 and the commissioners’ districts in 2015, less than a year after Democrats acquired every seat.
But in the ruling released Friday, the three-judge panel found that the newly created maps gave an unfair advantage to voters in suburban districts and should not be used. The maps violated equal representation, or “one person, one vote” principles in the U.S. Constitution, the panel said.
The ruling ordered the federal trial judge who tried the case to prohibit use of the new maps in the November elections. The decision affects all nine school board seats and two newly created regional Board of Commissioners seats that were scheduled to be on the Nov. 8 ballot.
“We see no reason why the November 2016 elections should proceed under the unconstitutional plans we strike down today,” the justices wrote in the ruling.
Their decision came on the last day of filing for candidates seeking a seat on the Wake school board. And it added more confusion to an election year that has seen many shifts of voting calendars and districting maps.
“The only part of the judge’s decision that was actionable was the admonishment to do a better job of equalizing the population. We actually agree with that and would like to do it, but I just don’t have time to do it,” Lewis said Friday night. “We started working on it. But, to be frank with you, I can’t get off the floor long enough to finish it.”
Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented plaintiffs in this action, said of the ruling: “This decision is an important recognition that redistricting is not a free-for-all. The Constitution provides safeguards to ensure that partisan gamesmanship does not interfere with the right to an equal vote. Every voter’s vote should be weighted equally.”
The new maps could also be challenged in court. State Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Republican who authored the district changes, said his office is evaluating the state’s legal options.
“It is unconscionable that an unelected and unaccountable federal court has not only quashed an effort to increase representation and geographic diversity on the Wake County Board of Commissioners, but has effectively disenfranchised all Wake County voters by canceling the county commission and school board elections,” Barefoot said in a statement.
School board Chairman Tom Benton urged the Wake County delegation in the state legislature to restore the election maps that the school board had adopted in 2011. If not, he said legislators should set up a process that would allow for full public input and vetting of any new proposed plan.
In the meantime, Benton called the ruling a “miracle” as it means he won’t have to run against Vice Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler in November. The new maps had put them both in the same district.
“Nobody knows what the next step will be in terms of the election time frame, but we’re obviously extremely pleased that the current districts have been ruled unconstitutional,” Benton said.
The Wake County Board of Elections is the defendant in the lawsuit because it’s charged with implementing the maps. Brian Ratledge, chair of the Wake Board of Elections, said Friday that the board’s attorney is reviewing the opinion and figuring out what options are available.
In 2013, the General Assembly redrew the lines for all nine Wake school board seats, turning two into regional districts that each cover about half the county. In 2015, state legislators changed the Wake commissioner lines to match those used by the school board.
Republican legislators insisted there were no partisan motives behind the change.
The new lines were challenged in a federal lawsuit filed by a group of left-leaning Wake County residents and groups. In February, U.S. Chief District Court Judge James C. Dever III, a George W. Bush appointee, dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs failed to show the new lines violated constitutional requirements.
The U.S. Fourth Circuit granted a request for an expedited appeal and heard arguments in May.
Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, a Bill Clinton appointee, dissented from Judge James Wynn, a Barack Obama appointee, and Judge Roger Gregory, a Clinton and George W. Bush appointee. In her dissent, Motz said the challengers had failed to meet the burden of showing that “illegitimate ‘partisanship’ constituted the predominant motivation for the presumptively constitutional redistricting plans.”
The majority opinion written by Wynn was critical of the General Assembly and questioned Dever’s decision to discount legislators who testified at trial for the challengers of the districts. The legislators who sponsored the new maps claimed legislative immunity, the ruling notes, and “refused to defend their actions.”
“This is not a case about what a particular word in a statute means,” Wynn wrote in the ruling. “Rather at the heart of this case is whether illegitimate factors predominated the General Assembly’s supplemental redistricting of Wake County such that illegitimate factors explain the population deviations in the redistricting plan.”
The ruling noted email exchanges and meetings between the Wake County Republican Party chairman and key legislators on how the GOP could win a majority of seats on the reconfigured boards.
“Rather than seeking proportional representation of the two main political parties, the evidence shows that the challenged plans under-populated Republican-leaning districts and over-populated Democratic-leaning districts in order to gerrymander Republican victories,” Wynn wrote. “In other words, the challenged redistricting here subverts political fairness and proportional representation and sublimates partisan gamesmanship.”
Brian Fitzsimmons, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, praised the ruling. “This is a decisive victory for Wake County citizens, and further proves that the General Assembly’s continued desire to circumvent the will of the people is unprovoked, unwarranted and now officially unconstitutional,” he said.
The story so far
▪ In 2011, Wake County school board flips from Republican to Democratic majority.
▪ In 2013, state lawmakers vote along partisan lines to redraw Wake school board election maps.
▪ In 2014, Wake County Board of Commissioners flips from Republican majority to all members being Democrats.
▪ In 2015, state lawmakers redraw, again along on partisan lines, Wake Board of Commissioners maps to be the same as the ones used by the school board.