Politics & Government

Federal judge overturns NC legislative attempt to change Greensboro’s city election system

A federal judge on Monday overturned a legislative redrawing of the Greensboro City Council districts, calling the maps unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles stated in her ruling that the action taken by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in July 2015 established one racially gerrymandered district and unjustly packed too many Democratic-leaning voters into several districts, weakening their overall voting power.

The Greensboro redistricting plan was sponsored by Republican Sen. Trudy Wade but she claimed legislative immunity and refused to testify at the trial earlier this year about why she introduced the 2015 plan. It surfaced in the same legislative session that the General Assembly attempted to change election districts for the Wake County commissioners. Both bills drew much criticism and speculation that the changes were power grabs designed to elect more Republicans.

Advocates of the changes argued the new Wake County and Greensboro plans would give residents better representation.

The Wake plan was overturned last summer in federal court. Instead, district lines that had been in place in 2011 were used for elections held last year.

The Greensboro plan, Eagles wrote in her ruling for the city and the six residents who filed the federal lawsuit, was “not directed or rationally related to any identifiable legitimate governmental purpose.”

“In both cases, the legislature redistricted the local entities through a ‘truncated’ legislative process without soliciting input from the affected parties or the local delegations,” Eagles stated in her ruling about the Guilford County and Wake County changes. “In both cases, there was a pattern of overpopulation in Democratic-leaning districts and underpopulation in Republican-leaning districts. In both cases, credible computer simulation evidence showed that the partisan benefits from the redistricting were ‘completely outside the range of outcomes that are possible under a nonpartisan process that creates equally populated districts’ and follows traditional criteria.”

According to the information before the legislature in 2015, 56 percent of Greensboro’s voters were registered as Democrat, 23 percent as Republican, 21 percent as unaffiliated, and less than 1 percent as Libertarian. Since 1999, the number of City Council members registered as Republicans has varied from zero to six; registered Republicans have usually, but not always, been in the minority.

At the time the 2015 law passed, all three at-large council members and the mayor were registered Democrats, four of the five district council members were registered Democrats, and one district council member was a registered Republican.

Eagles said the appropriate remedy for the unconstitutionally drawn districts was to return to the election plan in place before the 2015 changes “unless and until it is lawfully changed.”

“We are pleased that the court recognized the wrong that would have been done to the City of Greensboro and its residents if this redistricting scheme were allowed to go into effect,” said Allison Riggs, senior attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, one of the law firms that represented the challengers. “We can debate policies and practices, but there are certain rights that should never be denied to anyone in America. One of those is the right to have everyone’s vote have the same weight.”

Efforts to reach Wade on Monday were unsuccessful.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1