Judges strike down 2 North Carolina congressional districts

Rep. John Faircloth checks maps during a meeting of the joint redistricting committees Nov. 7, 2011. North Carolina lawmakers had returned for a special legislative session.
Rep. John Faircloth checks maps during a meeting of the joint redistricting committees Nov. 7, 2011. North Carolina lawmakers had returned for a special legislative session.

A federal court panel ruled late Friday that two of North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts were racially gerrymandered and must be redrawn within two weeks, sparking uncertainty about whether the March primary elections can proceed as planned.

An order from a three-judge panel bars elections in North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts until new maps are approved.

Challengers of North Carolina’s 2011 redistricting plan quickly praised the ruling, while legislators who helped design the maps said they were disappointed and promised a quick appeal.

“This ruling by all three judges is a vindication of our challenge to the General Assembly of North Carolina writing racially biased ‘apartheid' voting districts to disenfranchise the power of the African-American vote,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter.

The ruling comes more than two years after David Harris, a registered voter in Durham County, filed a lawsuit with Christine Bowser and Samuel Love, both registered voters from Mecklenburg County, seeking an invalidation of the two districts, which are represented by Democrats – G.K. Butterfield in District 1 and Alma Adams in District 12.

Mel Watt was the congressman for District 12 when the maps were redrawn. His district was the most litigated in the country during the 1990s, and the subject of four cases that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Redistricting lawsuits delayed North Carolina elections in 1998 and 2002.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican, and Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County, issued a joint statement calling the ruling disruptive.

“Should this decision be allowed to stand, North Carolina voters will no longer know how or when they will get to cast their primary ballots in the presidential, gubernatorial, congressional and legislative elections. And thousands of absentee voters may have already cast ballots that could be tossed out. This decision could do far more to disenfranchise North Carolina voters than anything alleged in this case.”

Political analysts speculate that any change in the maps in the 1st and 12th congressional districts will necessitate the tweaking of surrounding districts.

“So you’ve basically got the Piedmont of the state in flux with its congressional districts,” said Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer.

The 1st Congressional District, according to the lawsuit, is “akin to a Rorschach inkblot” that weaves through 24 counties, containing only five whole counties. The district is mostly in the northeastern part of the state and includes Durham, Elizabeth City, Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount, Goldsboro and New Bern.

The length of the district’s perimeter, according to the lawsuit, is 1,319 miles – “almost precisely the distance from Chapel Hill to Austin, Texas.”

The three voters contended that the Republican-led General Assembly that designed the maps in 2011 “ignored the common rural and agricultural interests” of Coastal Plain residents that federal courts have previously recognized. Durham, the newly added urban center, constitutes 25 percent of the district’s population.

The 12th Congressional District is 120 miles long but only 20 miles wide at its widest part. The district includes large portions of Charlotte and Greensboro connected by a thin strip – “averaging only a few miles wide” – that follows Interstate 85.

Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit complained that “a person traveling on Interstate 85 between the two cities would exit the district multiple times, as the district’s boundaries zigzag to encircle African-American communities.”

Critics of the 2011 Republican-led redistricting contend the map lines were drawn to concentrate black voters in districts that reduced their overall political power.

The lawsuit decided Friday is one of several challenging the maps in federal and state court.

Friday’s ruling was strongly worded in discounting the Legislature’s claims that race played no part in drawing the new maps, saying the redistricting had fundamentally affected citizens’ rights to vote.

“The record is replete with statements indicating that race was the Legislature’s paramount concern,” the ruling says.

The mapmakers said during court testimony that creating black-majority districts in some areas of the state was a lawful way to prevent the state from subjecting itself to legal claims under the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to protect minority voters.

Then in June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act that had required North Carolina and eight other primarily Southern states to get clearance from the U.S. Justice Department before changing election laws.

Forty of North Carolina’s 100 counties fell under that oversight. In their federal lawsuit, Harris and his fellow challengers argued that the state had used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as “a justification to racially gerrymander congressional districts.”

Barber predicted the ruling would impact a separate NAACP suit seeking to throw out the Legislature’s entire 2011 redistricting on grounds state House, Senate and congressional districts were drawn with racial bias.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently sent that case back to the state Supreme Court on grounds it didn’t ask the right questions about race. The state’s high court, however, rejected the Supreme Court’s advice in a split decision.

“This case proves that the Legislature was engaged in race-based redistricting, which is unconstitutional,” Barber said. “This case will help bolster our case.”

“Today’s ruling once again shows the need for North Carolina to establish a nonpartisan system for drawing our state’s voting maps,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, which advocates for government transparency and accountability.

“For years, partisan gerrymandering has led to costly litigation and deprived North Carolina voters of having a real choice and a voice in our elections. Fortunately, a growing number of citizens and leaders across the political spectrum agree that North Carolina should adopt an independent redistricting process.”

Greg Gordon of the McClatchy Washington bureau contributed.