Politics & Government

Federal appeals court won’t rehear Wake County election maps case

Wake County school board and government maps were ruled unconstitutional.
Wake County school board and government maps were ruled unconstitutional. News & Observer

The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a request to reconsider its July 1 ruling that declared the state legislature’s election maps for the Wake County Board of Commissioners and school board to be unconstitutional.

The order released Tuesday puts the onus back on U.S. Chief District Court Judge James C. Dever III, who has yet to tell state lawmakers and election officials whether there will be an election this fall and what maps will be used. The decision lifts an order that had put on hold a ruling that the districts can’t be used in the Nov. 8 elections.

While groups have offered different suggestions to Dever, the plaintiffs want to reinstate the election maps that the school board and commissioners had adopted in 2011 before they were replaced by the state legislature.

“On behalf of my clients who have been steadfast in the long and hard fight to vindicate their rights, I am pleased that we are now in a position to return to the prior constitutionally-drawn districts system for both boards,” Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said in a written statement Tuesday.

The Wake County Elections Board, which is the defendant in the case, had asked all 15 judges on the Fourth Circuit to review the decision made by the three-judge panel. The odds were against election officials because the Fourth Circuit only approves 0.3 percent of requests to rehear cases.

The Wake elections board could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and ask that the panel’s decision remain on hold.

The Wake board is down a member after Brian Ratledge, one of the two who had voted to appeal, resigned to become general counsel at the state Department of Administration. The State Board of Elections could appoint a replacement for Ratledge on Wednesday.

Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore have asked to be added as defendants, but the court hasn’t yet decided on their request.

In 2013, the Republican-led General Assembly redrew the lines for all nine Wake school board seats, turning two into regional districts that each covers about half the county. In 2015, state legislators changed the Wake commissioner lines to match those used by the school board.

All nine school board seats and five Board of Commissioners seats, including the two regional districts created by state legislators, were scheduled to be on the Nov. 8 ballot.

A group that includes several Democratic Party officials and activists challenged the new maps in court. In February, Dever dismissed the lawsuit, but he was overturned by the Fourth Circuit in a 2-1 decision.

Berger and Moore told Dever it’s too late for the General Assembly to draw up new maps this year. Instead both lawmakers propose that Dever allow the contested maps to be used in November, with legislators adopting new Wake maps next year.

Dever has told state legislative leaders and the State Board of Elections that he’s prepared to draw new election maps for this fall’s election if neither group is willing to do so. State election officials said they’d draw new maps if directed but warned they don’t have the expertise or software to do the job.

The courts and election officials are working under a tight timeframe for making any decisions about the Nov. 8 elections.

Wake election officials told Dever they need to know which lines to use by Aug. 10, which is the deadline for write-in candidates to petition for space on the ballot. Absentee ballots are scheduled to be mailed to voters beginning Sept. 9.

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