This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch.
State lawmakers in the House and Senate have unveiled the rules for drawing new voting maps, as a new round of redistricting begins.
As Policy Watch previously reported, the U.S. Census Bureau released new population and racial data on Thursday. Shifts in population require new district maps for local and state elections that will be held in 2022. The legislature is solely responsible for drawing congressional and legislative districts in North Carolina.
Lawmakers issued the criteria ahead of the census numbers. The criteria include ensuring equal population in each district and considering communities of interest, as well as geographical compactness and contiguity. To achieve that goal, lawmakers said they would try to avoid splitting counties, precincts, and municipalities.
However, lawmakers also proposed excluding racial data in drawing the district lines.
Several Democratic committee members expressed concerns about the committees’ ability to comply with the Voting Rights Act if racial data were excluded.
Section II of the Voting Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, as well as diluting of minority groups’ voting power in elections.
In 2016, a federal court threw out North Carolina congressional maps drawn by the legislature in 2011. The court found evidence of extreme racial gerrymandering, where map drawers intentionally concentrated minority voters in some districts but diluted their votes in others.
Racial gerrymandering occurs when race is the predominant consideration in drawing districts, said Allison Riggs, co-executive director and chief counsel for the voting rights program at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. During the 2011 redistricting cycle, Riggs said legislators segregated Black voters into oddly shaped congressional districts. By doing so, the legislature limited the Black voters’ influence in other districts. “It bleached the surrounding districts,” Riggs said.
In order to comply with the federal court order, the legislature’s solution has been to redraw district maps excluding racial data in considering district lines altogether. This is sometimes called a “race-blind” approach.
Riggs criticized the solution as “recalcitrant” and “out of the mainstream.” Other states have used racial data in redistricting to comply with the Voting Rights Act. She spoke against the “race-blind” approach during public comment at an earlier meeting on Tuesday.
In the North Carolina case, Cooper v. Harris, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, justices reaffirmed that lawmakers can’t use racial data as a proxy for gerrymanders—even if there is no racial intent.
“Of course I understand that North Carolina is obligated to comply with Section II of the Voting Rights Act,” said Sen. Paul Newton R-Union. “The Supreme Court told us that there’s no sufficient evidence of racially polarized voting in North Carolina to justify the consideration of race when drawing districts.”
“Just because you don’t look at something doesn’t mean you can’t generate the intent,” said Sen. Ben Clark, D-Cumberland and Hoke, in an interview. He told Policy Watch the legislature should study racial data in districts and evaluate their voting power.
Clark noted the dramatic increase in the number of majority Black Senate districts for the first time, after the 2011 redistricting — in about a dozen counties, including Mecklenburg. “There was no need to do so,” he said, adding that the packing of Black voters was deliberate.
Clark said during the committee hearing that it’s impossible to comply with the Voting Rights Act without using racial data, and introduced an amendment to account for it. His amendment failed.
Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, introduced an amendment to account for race, and to prohibit the packing Blacks into districts. His amendment also failed.
Rep. Destin Hall, R-Caldwell, said since the court-approved redrawn maps of the 2011 districts did not include any racial data, the committee chairs deem the exclusion the “best path forward.”
Sen. Warren Daniel, R-Burke, and co-chair of the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, won approval for an amendment that added language stating: “The committee will draw districts that comply with the Voting Rights Act.” Daniel said the committee will account for race if there is evidence of racially polarized voting in the redistricting process.
Amendments to other criteria failed
Dominated by Republicans, the two committees adopted only one technical amendment—on district contiguity—of the dozen amendments proposed by Democrats.
Rep. Zack Hawkins, D-Durham, suggested that legislators “make reasonable effort to preserve communities of interest.” Communities of interest normally share common similar racial, ethnic and cultural identities. As an example, referred to past redistricting that divided North Carolina A&T, a historically Black university into different districts.
Hawkins said there’s still room for improvement in the process and criteria. “2019 was our floor, and not our ceiling,” he said.
Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, proposed an amendment to allow for a difference of up to 150 people among congressional districts. She said the measure could help avoid splitting precinct, county and municipal boundaries. It could also compensate for inaccuracies in the granular-level population count. This can occur because of “statistical noise” injected into the numbers by the Census Bureau to protect respondents’ confidentiality.
Statistical noise in census data means it’s hard to guarantee population counts will be exact among congressional districts, said Christopher Kenny, a Ph.D. candidate in government and a redistricting researcher at Harvard University.
Rep. Hall said the census data and geographical files will be ready for the public to propose their own maps in three to four weeks. The state will set up map-drawing terminals for this purpose.
The redistricting committees will meet Wednesday at 9 a.m. to discuss the schedule for public hearings.
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