State Politics

NC lawmakers: More than 65% of districts could change to correct racial gerrymanders

NC lawmakers say they might have to change 119 of the state’s 170 legislative districts to correct racial gerrymanders. In 2016, Senators Dan Soucek, left, and Brent Jackson, right, review historical maps during a General Assembly session on Tuesday, February 16, 2016.
NC lawmakers say they might have to change 119 of the state’s 170 legislative districts to correct racial gerrymanders. In 2016, Senators Dan Soucek, left, and Brent Jackson, right, review historical maps during a General Assembly session on Tuesday, February 16, 2016. N&O file

North Carolina lawmakers say they might have to change 116 of the state’s 170 state legislative districts to correct the illegal racially gerrymandered districts used to elect General Assembly members for the past six years.

The private attorneys representing the legislators who were sued over the 2011 district lines offered that detail in federal court documents this week as one reason for opposing special elections this year.

A month has passed since the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a ruling of three federal judges who found 28 North Carolina legislative districts were drawn illegally to weaken the overall influence of black voters.

The three judges who made that ruling in 2016 – James Wynn, an Obama appointee to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Catherine Eagles, an Obama appointee, and Thomas Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee – have been tasked with deciding how quickly legislators have to correct the maps and whether there is time for elections this year in the newly drawn districts.

The NAACP and other challengers have asked the judges for a quick resolution and advocated for elections this year.

“North Carolinians have the right to have their laws enacted by representatives elected from constitutionally compliant districts,” the challengers said in a document filed last month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case. “Yet this illegally constituted legislature has demonstrated that it is willing to go to unconstitutional lengths to retain power.”

The lawmakers have argued that too few months are left in this year to seek public opinion, “engage in internal discussions about the design of remedial districts, prepare draft remedial plans, receive public responses to those draft remedial plans, and incorporate public feedback into the final plans.”

“In 2011, the process took five months,” Raleigh-based attorneys Phillip Strach and Thomas Farr said in the legislative position statement filed this week with the judges. “And implicit in this Court’s criticism of that process is that the General Assembly should have done even more — more outreach, more public hearings, more testimony, and more debate — so that it could fully consider the views and interests of the citizens of North Carolina. It thus would make no sense to artificially constrain this remedial process by ordering the General Assembly to proceed on an expedited schedule that would foreclose the possibility of a transparent and public process – especially given that ample time remains to complete the redistricting process for the 2018 elections without any prejudice to the plaintiffs.”

The lawmakers’ attorneys said that up to 35 of the state Senate districts might need to be modified, and 81 out of 120 state House of Representative districts could be changed.

If the court were to order special elections this year, candidates for the legislative seats could find themselves campaigning for office in three different primary and general elections during a two-year period.

Under the state Constitution, legislative terms are two years.

The state attorney general’s office, which Democrat Josh Stein leads, also submitted a report to the federal judges this week on behalf of the state and its elections board, urging a swift decision by the panel.

“The state does not dispute the severity of the harms that flow from unconstitutional gerrymandering,” the filing by Stein and Alexander McC. Peters, a special deputy attorney general, states. “Even so, a special election would disrupt the ordinary processes of state government and would intrude to some degree on state sovereignty. But should the Court decide that the nature and severity of the harms found in this case justify such a remedy, the state and state (elections) Board stand ready to implement it.”

Last month, Gov. Roy Cooper called for a special session during the legislature’s regular session to push lawmakers to draw maps for the judges to consider. Lawmakers didn’t comply with the Democratic governor’s request.

They finished their regular session at the end of June but left open two dates for which they could return and draw new legislative districts and possibly judicial districts that could bring major changes in the courts.

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham County, and House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, appointed two lawmakers to lead redistricting committees in the Senate and House. They are Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Mitchell County who is under investigation by the state elections board over complaints alleging campaign finance irregularities, and Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican.

Each was part of the 2011 map-drawing that led to the racial gerrymanders. Lewis led the House committee six years ago, and Hise was a member of the Senate committee.

In setting a schedule for possible sessions, on Aug. 3 and Sept. 6, the General Assembly leaders announced plans to have new maps no later than Nov. 15.

But the three judges can order the lawmakers to act sooner.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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