State Politics

Don’t let lawmakers ‘hang on to the fruits of their racial-gerrymandering labor,’ challengers say

Challengers of North Carolina’s election districts for General Assembly seats made known to the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, their opposition to a request from lawmakers to halt a three-judge panel’s ruling.
Challengers of North Carolina’s election districts for General Assembly seats made known to the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, their opposition to a request from lawmakers to halt a three-judge panel’s ruling. N&O file photo

North Carolina voters soon could find out which election districts for state Senate and House seats will be used this year.

Challengers of maps adopted in August by the General Assembly filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday their opposition to lawmakers’ request to block a January ruling instructing them to use a Stanford University law professor’s maps for eight counties.

It’s unclear how quickly the country’s highest court will respond. Candidates planning to run for election in 2018 must file for office by Feb. 28. The filing period opens on Feb. 12.

The challengers pointed out that since 2011, when the Republican-led General Assembly adopted new maps for the state’s 170 legislative districts, North Carolina has conducted three primary and three general elections under plans that contained 28 districts found by the courts to be racial gerrymanders. The Supreme Court affirmed that ruling seven months ago.

“For over six years now, the people of North Carolina have been ‘systematically assigned’ to state legislative districts according to their race,” attorneys for the challengers wrote in their response to Chief Justice John Roberts. “(N)ow, the leaders of the legislature that perpetrated the most extensive racial gerrymander in the Nation’s history have returned to this Court, seeking a stay of the district court’s remedial order so that they can hang on to the fruits of their racial-gerrymandering labor for at least one more election cycle. This Court should reject that request and afford respondents and the people of North Carolina the relief to which they are entitled — an election under constitutionally compliant legislative-redistricting plans.”

On Jan. 19, a panel of federal judges ordered North Carolina lawmakers to use maps drawn by Stanford law professor Nathaniel Persily after the challengers complained that racial gerrymanders persisted in maps adopted by lawmakers in August in response to the court order striking down the 28 unconstitutional districts. Persily, who was hired as a “special master” by the court to consider changes in the questionable districts, created different districts in eight counties – Senate districts in Cumberland, Guilford and Hoke, and House districts in Bladen, Guilford, Mecklenburg, Sampson, Wake and Wayne counties. All other districts remain as adopted by lawmakers in late August.

Republicans announced their plans to appeal the decision and referred to a different federal ruling in which a different three-judge panel found North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts to be unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders – the first opinion of its kind related to congressional seats.

In asking the country’s high court to block the ruling on state legislative districts, attorneys for the lawmakers called the decision to use the special master’s plans a “hostile takeover of the state redistricting process.”

North Carolina and voting rights advocates

There has been much attention nationally on North Carolina and the many lawsuits challenging districts drawn since Republicans gained control of the General Assembly in 2010.

Every 10 years after the census, states tweak election lines to show population shifts. For years, parties in power have used the process to try to keep and gain seats in state legislative bodies and in Congress.

Currently Republicans dominate the General Assembly with numbers that allow them to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes. They hold 35 of the 50 Senate seats and 75 of the 120 House seats.

A previous draft of Persily’s plan appears to make it easier for Democrats to defeat Republican incumbents in four House races and two Senate races. Persily redrew just a fraction of the state’s 170 legislative districts, mostly in urban counties that tend to favor Democrats. Most of the districts drawn in August favor Republicans, according to a News & Observer analysis.

Ending veto-proof majorities could put Republicans in a position of having to negotiate with Cooper and some Democrats on occasion.

To take back the General Assembly, Democrats would need to flip 16 House seats and 11 Senate seats in November.

On Friday in Raleigh, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held panel discussions about the state of voting rights in the country since the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in 2013 that struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act.

North Carolina was used an example for voting rights advocates hoping to restore measures that were struck down. Speakers cited the numerous gerrymander lawsuits, as well as the attempt by lawmakers to overhaul the state’s election laws in 2013 to require photo identification cards to vote and to curb early voting and other measures that made it easier for people to vote.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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