Politics & Government

Possible racial basis of Wake County election maps questioned

The Wake County board of commissioners meets Dec. 1, 2014. Chairman James West testified Thursday that the county’s redrawn election maps could make it harder to elect multiple African Americans to the board.
The Wake County board of commissioners meets Dec. 1, 2014. Chairman James West testified Thursday that the county’s redrawn election maps could make it harder to elect multiple African Americans to the board. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Much of the focus Thursday in a federal trial over election maps for the Wake County school board and the board of commissioners concerned whether the General Assembly illegally packed a district with African-American voters.

Republican state lawmakers put the mostly black Southeast Raleigh area, along with parts of Garner and Knightdale, into a voting district that is 54 percent African-American. A coalition of left-leaning Wake County residents and community groups contended Thursday that the lines were racially gerrymandered to concentrate African-Americans, about 21 percent of Wake’s voters, into District 4. Race can’t legally be a driving factor for election boundaries.

James West, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, testified Thursday that the new lines could make it harder to elect multiple African-Americans. West is a Democrat who represents much of Southeast Raleigh.

“It sends a message of not respecting black voters,” West said. “It also diminishes the idea of self-worth. This particular solution is somewhat disparaging.”

Attorneys for the Wake County Board of Elections, which is the defendant because it’s implementing the new maps, said state lawmakers might have had non-racial reasons such as trying to place more Democrats in District 4.

The General Assembly created new district maps for the school board in 2013 and applied them to the board of commissioners in April.

In lawsuits challenging the changes, the plaintiffs contend the plans unfairly weaken the power of urban voters and strengthen the suburban and rural vote to restore Republican majorities to both Wake boards.

Under the new maps, two of the nine school board seats would be converted into super-regional districts, each representing half the county. One would largely represent Central Raleigh and the other would represent the suburbs. The lines for the remaining seven board seat districts would be revised, too, as would the election cycle.

The new maps expand the board of commissioners from seven members to nine. The elections would no longer be countywide, but would instead use the school board’s lines.

Jannet Barnes, a Democratic activist and past president of a group that is a plaintiff, testified that the new lines treat African-Americans as “token voters.” She said the lines presume that African-American candidates can only win when African-Americans make up the majority.

“It’s really insulting,” said Barnes, who’s registered in the new District 4. “It says we don’t have the capability or the informed knowledge to make a decision.”

Jowei Chen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan and a political geography expert, testified with “statistical certainty” that District 4’s boundaries were motivated by “racial packing” of African-American voters and not for partisan reasons. The courts have ruled that districts can be designed for partisan advantage.

Chen based his testimony by comparing the General Assembly’s lines with 500 maps he produced that tried as much as possible to minimize population differences, to not split election precincts, to not split municipalities and to keep districts geographically compact.

Chen did similar simulations to argue that the only way state lawmakers could make five of the nine districts lean Republican was to exercise “an unusual level of partisan control.” Based on his simulations, Chen said, Republicans should statistically have had fewer GOP-leaning districts.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Matthew Tynan asked questions to try to show that legislators don’t have to use standards as tight as Chen had used. Chen based his simulations on a 1 percent population difference between districts while the defense says the variance can be as high as 10 percent.

Tynan also questioned Chen about how, under his simulations, he had some maps that had a majority of District 4 voters being African-American. But Chen responded those results were not typical.

Tynan also questioned Chen about how much he was being paid for his testimony. Chen said he was being paid $500 per hour and also told U.S. District Court Chief Judge James Dever he had put in 40 hours of work.

The plaintiffs closed their case Thursday; the defense called no witnesses. The trial continues Friday with closing arguments. Dever told the parties on Wednesday he hoped to have a ruling in the case this month.

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