Politics & Government

Federal court to scrutinize Wake County election lines

Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes, left, and Wake County School Board member Bill Fletcher confer during a joint meeting of the commissioners and the school board on Jan. 26, 2015. Fletcher said the redrawn election maps “could create something that our community did not ask for and will not be happy with.”
Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes, left, and Wake County School Board member Bill Fletcher confer during a joint meeting of the commissioners and the school board on Jan. 26, 2015. Fletcher said the redrawn election maps “could create something that our community did not ask for and will not be happy with.” cseward@newsobserver.com

A long-awaited federal court trial is scheduled to begin Wednesday over the constitutionality of election maps that the General Assembly rewrote for the Wake County school board and board of commissioners, over the objections of both bodies.

A coalition of Wake County residents and community groups say the new lines are an illegal attempt to weaken the influence of progressive, urban and minority voters to make it easier to elect Republicans to office. Attorneys for elections officials argue that the lines meet constitutional standards and that whatever partisanship may have occurred did not go too far.

In June 2013, the General Assembly rewrote the school board election maps to turn two of nine districts into regional seats, each covering half the county. The remaining seven districts also saw their lines altered.

“This could create something that our community did not ask for and will not be happy with,” said school board member Bill Fletcher, the body’s lone registered Republican, of the new election lines at a meeting earlier this month.

In April, the state lawmakers changed the Wake County Board of Commissioners election maps to match the school board lines. The change increases the number of commissioners from seven to nine but also eliminates their status as countywide races. Individual voters will only be able to vote in two commission races instead of voting in them all.

Republican lawmakers have said the school board changes were needed so that individual voters would have more say by voting for two seats instead of one. But legislators supporting the reduction in the number of commission seats a single voter could influence said countywide elections were impractical in an area as large as Wake.

The lawsuits contend the changes were made for partisan motives, noting that they weren’t adopted until after both boards changed from Republican to Democratic majorities. Voting results in past contests indicate that the new lines could result in Republicans gaining majorities on both boards. Separate lawsuits filed against both changes were consolidated into the one case.

Calls to Sen. Chad Barefoot and Rep. Paul Stam were not immediately returned. The plaintiffs have filed a request that Barefoot, Stam and two other Republican lawmakers turn over any records about the redistricting changes.

The trial could have a major immediate impact on both boards. The changes for the commissioners are being phased in with the 2016 election. That filing period is in progress.

All nine school board seats are scheduled to be on the November 2016 ballot using the new maps. School board members complain that the new lines could lead to mass turnover. The new lines place six of the nine board members in the same two districts.

“It’s just poor governance,” school board member Kevin Hill said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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