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NC redistricting suit challenges lack of race data for maps

In this Monday, July 15, 2019 file photo, a state districts map is shown as a three-judge panel of the Wake County Superior Court presides over the trial of Common Cause, et al. v. Lewis, et al, in Raleigh, N.C.
Gerry Broome
In this Monday, July 15, 2019 file photo, a state districts map is shown as a three-judge panel of the Wake County Superior Court presides over the trial of Common Cause, et al. v. Lewis, et al, in Raleigh, N.C.

Advocacy groups and voters sued on Friday to block the North Carolina General Assembly's timetable to pass new boundaries for legislative seats next week, saying Republicans are breaking rules designed to ensure Black voters can elect their favored candidates.

The North Carolina NAACP, Common Cause and four individuals filed a lawsuit i n Wake County court challenging the legislators' refusal to consider racial data or evaluate the presence of racially polarized voting in the state before considering map proposals. Avoiding such activity means it's impossible to follow the state constitution and the legal recipe set by the state Supreme Court in the 2000s to make sure House and Senate districts comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act, according to the lawsuit.

“The result of this fatally flawed process is one that will be harmful to voters of color,” Allison Riggs with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, told reporters. Even with plain instructions set out by the state Supreme Court, she added, Republicans “got it wrong” and “have stubbornly refused” to look at race-based data and analyze parts of the state where voting patterns divided by race have worsened.

The plaintiffs want a judge to immediately stop the current process, demand that the recipe be followed and delay the General Assembly primary set for March 8 until at least May to give legislators and voters more time.

The litigation came about as General Assembly members have been drawing maps over the past three weeks and held public hearings this week. Lawmakers were expected to begin debating and voting on specific plans starting Monday. They want to enact boundaries based on 2020 census figures for the two legislative chambers and for the U.S. House delegation by the end of next week. Candidate filing is currently set to begin Dec. 6.

Republicans filed additional plan proposals Friday that if approved likely would heavily favor the GOP to extend their current legislative majorities in each chamber and have a good chance to win at least 10 of the 14 U.S. House seats the state will have starting with the 2022 elections.

The GOP-controlled House and Senate redistricting committees votedin August to prohibit racial data — such as the percentage of minorities on voter registration rolls and within the voting-age population of a certain county or proposed district. They argue that maps drawn in the late 2010s that courts signed off on didn't use such data, and that judges have found there isn't enough voting polarization by race to be necessary to review.

“We did not look at race, and the courts did not criticize us for that,” said Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican and co-chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, in a recent interview. “So as we walk now into 2021, why would we do anything different?”

But without successful litigation, the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote, the votes of Black residents will be diluted and their power weakened.

“Lawmakers’ supposed ‘race-blind’ redistricting process is rigged to reduce the strength of our votes, silence our voices, and negate decades of struggle and sacrifice for fairer maps,” state NAACP President Deborah Dicks Maxwell said in a news release. The lawsuit doesn't challenge the congressional map process, which isn't covered by the state Supreme Court rulings from the early 2000s identified in the litigation.

House Redistricting Committee Chairman Destin Hall of Caldwell County, a lawsuit defendant along with Speaker Tim Moore, Senate leader Phil Berger and others, called the litigation in a tweet another iteration of the Democrats' strategy to sue to win more seats. The Democratic Party or a party official isn't listed among the plaintiffs, however.

“I stand firmly behind our process and look forward to fighting against this ludicrous lawsuit,” Hall said in a news release.

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