Redistricting plans draw legal challenges

Within days of the state learning that the U.S. Department of Justice had pre-cleared North Carolina’s congressional and legislative redistricting plans, two major challenges were filed in Wake County courts.

The first challenge, filed last Thursday by a legal team led by Edwin Speas, former general counsel to Gov. Beverly Perdue, names as the lead plaintiff former state Sen. Margaret Dickson of Cumberland County, who lost her seat in 2010 in one of the state’s nastiest races. The line for Dickson’s former district was moved across the street from her Fayetteville residence.

Dickson is among other well-known plaintiffs, including former Democratic congressmen Bob Etheridge and Tim Valentine, and sitting legislators Sen. Linda Garrou, D-Forsyth, and Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford.

The suit challenges the constitutionality of the plan, saying it unfairly packs black voters into a few districts, “arbitrarily and capriciously” splits hundred of voting precincts, divides a far greater number of counties than required and creates many districts that fail to meet the test for compactness.

On Friday, a group of voting rights groups, including the state NAACP, Democracy North Carolina and the League of Women Voters of North Carolina, also sued, challenging the GOP-drawn districts.

That suit says the plans violate equal protection claims of black voters as guaranteed in the the state and federal constitutions. It also says the plans split too many precincts and contain violations of the whole-county provision of the N.C. Constitution, which states that counties must not be divided when drawing legislative districts.

Republican redistricting leaders said they expect the plans to clear the courts, pointing to the Justice Department’s preclearance.

Opponents countered that the Justice Department looked only at criteria established under the Voting Rights Act to determine if the plans diluted the voting strength of black voters—not at the constitutional issues raised in the suits.

The maps were right, the statistics accurate, but the actual law on the booksnot so much.

Legislators returned for a long day in Raleigh Monday to fix a coding error that caused the state’s redistricting program to fail to add areas to the text of the five new redistricting laws, leaving hundreds of thousands of voters unassigned under the adopted plans.

New districts for the state house and senate, Congress, Wake Superior Court and the Greene County Board of Commissioners were among those affected.

GOP leaders tried to downplay the error, emphasizing that the U.S. Department of Justice had precleared the plan based on the maps and statistics, not the bill text, which is mainly a long list of numbers corresponding to each voting tabulation district.

In committee hearings and on the floor of both chambers, GOP redistricting chairs said the mistakes and the proposed fix were purely technical.

House Redistricting Chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett, said he first learned of the mistakes on Oct. 27 when State Board of Elections officials who were building maps using the text of the law encountered unassigned census blocks in split precincts in Wake County.

After checking the plans, the Legislature’s technical staff found problems with seven of the state’s 13 congressional districts, 24 of the state senate districts and half of the state’s 120 house districts.

Democrats pounced on the fact that the error had happened in cases where districts were split, a key point in the newly filed lawsuits, which challenge the constitutionality of the maps in part because of excessive splitting of voting precincts.

“You call it a glitch, I call it a travesty,” Grier Martin, D-Wake, told Lewis during floor debate.

Martin, one of several Democratic lawmakers who were double bunked in the redistricting, said the GOP tried to split far too many precincts in order to achieve districts favorable to Republicans.

“You pushed the boundaries so much in North Carolina that we broke the program,” Martin said.

House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, said the glitch also caused problems in districts drawn by Democrats. If one of those plans had passed, it would have also needed to be fixed.

With a court reporter in each chamber and at all committee hearings, Democrats also focused on the fix itself, saying that under the state constitution, the districts as drawn cannot be changed until a court declares them unconstitutional.

“Rather than curing the problem you’re making it doubly unconstitutional,” said Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland.

But with enough votes in hand, Republicans voted in favor of the maps, reminding Democrats of their own redistricting history.

Rep. John Blust, R-Guilford, said Democrats’ argument had a “strange credulity” given plans they produced in the past that split counties and precincts and had multiple member districts.

“I no longer give your words weight,” he said.

Less than six hours after gaveling in the session, the curative legislation passed both chambers along party lines.

GOP leaders said they would resubmit the legislation to the Department of Justice, but did not anticipate problems since the preclearance issued last week was based on the maps and statistics, which were not affected by the error.

The Legislature may have pulled off a single-day session, but at the end of Monday’s marathonjust shy of 8 p.m.Democrats loudly objected when Republicans unveiled plans to hold three more mini-sessions before the regular short session begins next May.

Republican leaders, who said last week they would not press for any veto overrides or other major legislation this week, want the lawmakers to reconvene during the week after Thanksgiving to consider veto overrides, hurricane relief, changing the state’s casino contract with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and election law modifications.

Rep. Paul Luebke, D-Durham, said the adjournment resolution, which also schedules sessions in February and April to deal with possible changes to redistricting plans and election laws, means the Legislature is turning into a year-round operation. This makes it difficult for lawmakers who have other jobs to juggle their schedules.

“This totally undermines the idea of the citizen legislature,” he said.

Under the adjournment, which passed 62-44 along party lines, the Legislature returns for a skeleton session on Sunday, Nov. 27.