The prospect of quickly redrawing two of North Carolina’s congressional districts to comply with a federal court order lurched to an uncertain future on Monday.
Amid a winter storm that may have hampered attendance, members of a joint legislative redistricting committee held a hearing simultaneously at six places across the state, connected by video conferencing. A seventh site in Greensboro was closed because of the weather.
The committee expects to begin redrawing the 1st and 12th congressional districts Tuesday and Wednesday, and then hold a two-day special session for the full General Assembly to vote on them Thursday and Friday – unless the U.S. Supreme Court says they don’t need to.
Republican legislative leaders call the process a contingency measure as they hope Chief Justice John Roberts will put on hold a federal three-judge panel’s order that gave the state two weeks to come up with new districts. Roberts has given the plaintiffs, who sued to challenge the districts as racial gerrymanders, until Tuesday afternoon to respond to the state’s motion for a stay.
Meanwhile, the three-judge panel’s Friday deadline looms.
Adding to the uncertainty is the unexpected death last weekend of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, whom Republicans were counting on to side with them if their appeal is heard. Now the high court is politically split 4-4, and a tie would leave the lower court’s ruling intact.
Monday’s public hearing drew 78 speakers and went on for 5 1/2 hours at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh and on five college campuses. Most of the speakers repeated arguments on both sides that were familiar and partisan. The legislature’s task this week is to determine how to shape these two districts in a way that satisfies the trio of federal judges, or else the judges will do it for them.
Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who is co-chairman of the legislative redistricting committee, reiterated that legislative mapmakers in 2011 came up with districts that they thought would pass legal muster.
“We will exercise all avenues of appeal to see that they remain in place,” Rucho said in a prepared statement at the start of the hearing in Raleigh. “However, because of the compressed timeline imposed upon us by the court, and in light of our ongoing appeal and request for a stay, we think it’s a prudent course to open a public comment process in the event that the maps need to be redrawn.”
On Tuesday, the joint Senate-House committee is scheduled to meet to assess the public input from the hearings and emailed comments, and come up with criteria for the legislature’s mapmaking consultant. Proposed new maps probably would be finished late Wednesday or early Thursday, according to Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who is the other committee co-chairman. Legislative leaders would have to ask the governor to call the General Assembly back to Raleigh.
Rucho said the hearings were held because that’s how the redistricting was done in 2011 when Republicans took over the General Assembly. However, Democratic Leader Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh said outside the hearing room in Raleigh that the hearings were unnecessary.
“This is all theater,” Blue said, contending that the Republicans should have begun redrawing the maps immediately when the federal judges ruled on Feb. 5.
Some speakers offered concrete suggestions on how to configure the districts in a way that doesn’t rely entirely on racial balance or reduce the influence of black voters by packing them together.
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, said that if the districts must be redrawn, precincts and counties should be kept whole as much as possible, especially in rural areas, which have declining political influence. But beyond that, race should not be a factor, he said.
“Let’s dispense of this issue of the appropriate amount of racial consideration,” Woodhouse said. “Let us draw districts without any consideration of race whatsoever. Let’s make completely colorblind district drawing.”
U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, the incumbent Democrat in the 1st Congressional District for the past 11 years, planned to attend the hearing but was unable to make it. Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, read Butterfield’s remarks.
Butterfield said the committee already should have redrawn proposed maps and then presented them for public reaction, rather than the other way around. He said the time squeeze was the legislature’s own fault because it intentionally skirted the law by using race as a predominant factor in the maps and by insisting that each district contained African-American populations exceeding 50 percent.
“It’s my opinion you were fully aware that you were incorrectly applying the law,” he said. “In a disingenuous way you used a flawed interpretation of the Voting Rights Act for your own partisan political advantage.”
Butterfield said a fair plan would give Democrats a chance to win five or six of the 13 congressional districts, instead of the three they hold now.
He said the three-judge panel’s order will not be overturned by the Supreme Court, and voters should not be forced to vote in districts that have been declared unconstitutional. Voters who already have been given absentee ballots can be sent new ones, he said.
He said it was “imperative” that congressional elections – or all the primary elections – be delayed until May 24, now the scheduled date of any primary runoffs.
Jane Pinsky with the Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform renewed the push for nonpartisan redistricting, which several speakers supported.
“The problem is not with the districts as they are drawn, but rather with the process that has required you to draw these districts,” she said. “We have an unfortunate and long history in North Carolina of gerrymandering.”
How we got here
The General Assembly is required by law to revise legislative and congressional districts every 10 years, after each census. The districts must satisfy the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits states from adopting maps that dilute minority voting strength.
The North Carolina legislature drew versions of the current 12th Congressional District in 1991, and the current 1st District in 1992. The elongated 12th was the most litigated in the country in the 1990s, the subject of four cases that went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
After the 2010 census, the Republicans, now in control of the legislature, drew new maps and approved them in 2011. Two sets of plaintiffs sued over congressional districts in state court, alleging that race was too dominant a factor in the plan. A panel of three state judges consolidated the cases and, in 2013, upheld the maps.
The plaintiffs appealed; the N.C. Supreme Court affirmed the panel’s judgment. When the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, it sent the matter back to the state’s high court, which in December reaffirmed the trial court’s ruling.
A separate suit was filed in federal court in 2013, alleging that the state was illegally packing African-American voters into the 1st and 12th districts. A three-judge federal panel took up the case, and on Feb. 5 agreed with the plaintiffs – ordering that new maps be drawn by Feb. 19.
The state asked for a halt to that order, and last week U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts gave the plaintiffs until Tuesday to respond. That leaves a three-day window before the three-judge panel’s deadline Friday for new maps.
Exacerbating the time crunch is that the General Assembly last fall moved the primary election from May to March 15.