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The maps haven’t been adopted yet. But a redistricting lawsuit has already been filed in NC — and no one's surprised

The North Carolina General Assembly's Joint Redistricting Committee hears public comment on draft congressional maps, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.
Rusty Jacobs/ WUNC
The North Carolina General Assembly's Joint Redistricting Committee hears public comment on draft congressional maps, Monday, Oct. 25, 2021.

Updated at 2:50 p.m.

The clearest and loudest message to emerge from two days of public comment on North Carolina's latest round of redistricting was that the Legislature's Republican majority seems to be picking up where it left off last decade.

"It's obvious to me that they're seeing what I am seeing," said state Sen. Natasha Marus (D-Mecklenburg), referring to the dozens of people who appeared before the Joint Redistricting Committee to comment on draft legislative and congressional maps that have begun to emerge from the decennial process of redrawing voting districts based on the latest census data. "That these maps were drawn for partisan advantage to an extreme extent, and Republicans are up to their tricks yet again."

In 2019, Republicans were forced by a state court to redraw legislative and congressional district maps — or risk having the court do it instead — because the latest GOP-drawn maps were determined to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered on the basis of excessive partisanship.

It's obvious to me that they're seeing what I am seeing, which is that these maps were drawn for partisan advantage to an extreme extent and Republicans are up to their tricks yet again.
Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg)

That redraw came at the end of a decade marked by protracted litigation over various sets of maps drawn by the Legislature's Republican majority, including ones thrown out by a federal court for being unlawfully manipulated by Republicans on the basis of race.

But Republican leaders in the General Assembly maintain they are sticking voluntarily to the same basic criteria used in the 2019 redraw. Notably, they did not use partisan or racial data in the drawing of maps. The other main criteria include keeping districts compact and contiguous, and avoiding the splitting of municipalities and counties, where possible.

For densely populated — and heavily blue — counties like Wake and Mecklenburg, that can be very challenging because of legal requirements to keep the populations of congressional districts equal with virtually no deviation, and close to equal for state legislative districts, within a range of plus or minus five percent.

"We're just following the law," said state Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus), co-chair of the Joint Redistricting Committee. "So it's never going to be as any one person would ideally like it, probably, for their district because a lot the discretion is taken away from us."

Newton was talking at the end of one of last week's public comment sessions during which most of the speakers assailed Republicans for using what discretion they do have to crank out draft maps that would solidify GOP majorities in Congress and the state Legislature.

Many of the complaints focused on the number of times GOP-drawn maps carve up left-leaning urban areas like Mecklenburg, Wake, and Guilford counties, and, in the case of a proposed state Senate district map, the way two Democratic incumbents would be pitted against one another in one potential Mecklenburg County district while Senator Marcus, a Democrat, would be "double bunked" in a right-leaning district with a Republican incumbent.

"Their map would eliminate two duly elected members of the North Carolina Senate," Marcus said. "I don't think that's the way Democracy is supposed to work. I think voters want to have their own opportunity to either re-elect or elect someone else."

Different mapmakers, different maps

To get a sense for just how starkly different district maps can be, depending on who draws them, one need only look at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project website.

The project conducts nonpartisan analyses of district maps, grading them based on a variety of factors, including competitiveness, geographical compactness and the number of county splits.

A map for North Carolina's 14 congressional districts, proposed by state Sen. Ben Clark (D-Cumberland, Hoke), would keep Guilford County whole and pair it with a part of neighboring Forsyth County, which includes the urban areas of Winston-Salem and High Point, creating a distinctly Triad-centric district. Clark's proposed map also would split Mecklenburg County and Wake County only once each.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave Clark's draft map an overall grade of A and determines it could yield a 7-7 partisan split in the state's congressional delegation. Notably, the map would create a new congressional district for the Sandhills region, something many people from that area demanded in public comment sessions.

I must remind everybody here that Democratic majorities can be just as pernicious as Republican majorities, and I think it is in the best interest of this state, and the population in the state, to do the right thing and do not gerrymander.
Joseph McCarthy, Republican voter from Chatham County

"What I wanted to do," Senator Clark recently said, describing his proposed congressional districts, "is I wanted to create a structure by which you would have seven rooted in the east and seven rooted in the west."

When asked if he might run for Congress to represent a Sandhills district, Clark, who resides in the area and recently announced he would not run for re-election to the state Senate, merely said he was keeping all options on the table.

State House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) has faced similar questions about his political future since proposed congressional maps have a district built around his home county. But, like Clark, Moore has deflected, saying that he is focused on budget negotiations and redistricting, without denying he might run for Congress.

In contrast to Senator Clark's proposed map, state Sen. Warren Daniel (R-Avery, Burke, Caldwell) has submitted a congressional map that would give Republicans a 10-4 advantage in the congressional delegation, according to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which gave the plan an overall grade of F.

Daniel's map would divide Guilford County, as opposed to keeping it whole like Clark's map. And despite having densely populated, left-leaning Greensboro at its core, under the Daniel map, part of Guilford County would be connected to Rockingham County to the north and stretched to the west to include more conservative areas, creating a safe GOP district. The other part of Guilford would be linked to an area that creeps south and east, creating another likely GOP district that includes Alamance, Randolph, and parts of Davidson counties, as well as Chatham, Lee, and bits of Wake and Durham counties.

Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey), left, pointing at the screen, works on a congressional district map with two GOP staffers. Oct. 14, 2021, at the North Carolina General Assembly.
Rusty Jacobs
File photo of Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey), left, pointing at the screen while working on a congressional district map with two GOP staffers on Oct. 14, 2021, at the North Carolina General Assembly.

"Every single Republican map that was given split all three major cities between Winston-Salem, High Point, and Greensboro into different districts," noted Tyler Beall, a 29-year-old Guilford County resident, who attended one of the public comment sessions at the legislature last week. "That right there alone should totally disqualify those maps because they're not even staying together with compact and congruent interests."

"I would like them just to take into account the growing Latino and Asian communities in Wake County," said Angeline Echeverria, who also attended the public comment session last Monday. "And to ensure that our county is not divided up into three different congressional districts, that our votes are not diluted and that the representation for new and growing racial and ethnic communities of color are taken into account for the future."

Echeverria is the former executive director of El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based nonprofit group that advocates for the Latinx community. Like other critics of the GOP-led redistricting process, said she thinks that lawmakers made a mistake by ruling out all consideration of race in the drawing of voting districts.

"This committee has decided to take a 'color-blind approach' where they're not even taking into account the racial and ethnic makeup of our communities when creating the maps," she said. "And as a result of that, the maps that they are creating are maps that are not empowering to our communities."

Considering race in the mapmaking process

Indeed, Republican lawmakers' refusal to consider race at all in the makeup of state legislative district maps could run afoul of a North Carolina Supreme Court ruling from the early 2000s. Under that redistricting case, legislators, must identify and preserve VRA districts, areas where, without protections under the Voting Rights Act, minority voters would otherwise be deprived of the ability to elect their preferred candidates.

At a virtual press conference last week, state Sen. Dan Blue (D-Wake), the Democratic leader, addressed the GOP's refusal to consider racial data and to preserve such VRA districts in state legislative maps.

"I feel confident that either a court or this legislature will acknowledge that in several places there have to be VRA districts," Blue said.

And Blue's not the only one. Late Friday, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed a lawsuit on behalf of individual plaintiffs and well as the NAACP of North Carolina and Common Cause seeking to halt the drawing of state legislative maps.

"The result of this fatally flawed process is one that will be harmful to voters of color," said Allison Riggs, co-executive director at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. "In particular, Black voters in northeastern North Carolina."

The lawsuit, which also seeks a delay in the candidate filing period and 2022 primaries for state legislative races, has four named plaintiffs, individual voters, from Halifax, Wilson, and Duplin counties.

In response to the lawsuit, Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Yancey), a co-chair of the redistricting committee, said in a statement: "This same lawsuit outfit sued us previously because we used race, and now they're suing us because we didn't use race."

He added: "The only constant here is finding any excuse to sue to gain partisan advantage, no matter how contradictory, and they're doing it before the maps have even been considered by a legislative committee."

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice was party to a 2015 lawsuit that resulted in a federal court finding state legislative districts drawn by North Carolina's GOP-controlled legislature were unconstitutionally gerrymandered on the basis of race.

Blue, the state senate's Democratic leader, also slammed draft congressional district maps drawn by Republicans that would give GOP candidates a 10-4 or 11-3 partisan edge.

There's nothing the Republicans can do to prevent that litigation from happening. The Democrats have already said they're going to be suing us, period.
Sen. Paul Newton (R-Cabarrus)

"If you want to be fair, you know what a fair map would look like and what the fair numbers would indicate in a state that's 50-50," he said. "You don't have to make them absolutely equal but at least you'd make an effort to make sure that the rules by which we're going to engage in legislating in North Carolina are fair rules, which would apply also to redistricting."

Before Friday's lawsuit was filed, Republican state Senator Paul Newton said litigation is inevitable, from state as well as national Democratic groups.

"There's nothing the Republicans can do to prevent that litigation from happening," said Newton. "The Democrats have already said they're going to be suing us, period."

The House and Senate redistricting committees are expected to take up proposed maps for their respective legislative districts early this week—and the Joint Redistricting Committee will look at proposed congressional districts—with full floor votes, and adoption of new maps, to follow.

The governor has no veto power over redistricting plans, so the majority party will get what it wants unless, and until, a court steps in.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sen. Natasha Marcus (D-Mecklenburg) would be "double bunked" with another Democrat in a GOP-drawn state Senate map. In fact, Marcus would be "double bunked" with a Republican incumbent. The text has been updated.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.
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