Raleigh’s first in-person city council meeting since the COVID pandemic devolved into name-calling Tuesday as angry residents railed against the city’s new district map. Despite residents’ concerns, including whether the city’s redistricting plan complied with the federal Voting Rights Act, council members ultimately approved the map in a 7-1 vote.
Raleigh officials began the redistricting process last year after decennial census data revealed that the populations of Districts A and B were out of balance with Districts C, D, and E. The city is required to redraw its election districts every 10 years to ensure each has a relatively equal population, so everyone’s vote carries the same weight.
The 12 people who spoke against the new district map Tuesday all had similar complaints—that Black and Latinx communities were being split up and their voices and votes would go unheard. Their primary concern was over the Brentwood and Green Road neighborhoods in North Raleigh, which are majority Black and Latino. Under the new map, those voting precincts are moved from District B, also a majority-minority area, to District A, a majority white area.
Councilman David Cox, the lone opposing vote, said he was worried the new map was not racially equitable.
“We ended up moving about 55,000 people, which is about 12 percent of Raleigh’s population. The majority, nearly 60 percent, are non-white. So even though District B still predominantly has a minority population, that minority population is being diluted as a result of (the new map),” Cox said. “It also begs the question of how, in a city that is majority white, do we end up with a plan that moves a majority of non-white citizens?”
In an additional statement to the INDY, Cox emphasized that 70 percent of the people in District B who were redistricted were racial minorities and that of the 55,419 people redistricted throughout the city, 55 percent are minority—”an astounding result given that the city overall majority is white,” he said.
The redistricting process
Following the delayed release of the census data until last September, city staff was instructed to provide redistricting options based on population equality, geographic contiguity, compactness, preserving communities of interest, protecting incumbents, and consideration of future growth to members of a council-appointed study group. The study group would then collect public input, analyze, and provide feedback—pros and cons—on the different redistricting options to the city council. The group is the same one appointed to analyze council pay, term lengths, whether to add an additional district, and whether to stagger terms.
City staff did not draw the new districts with public input. Nor were they given the option to draw the maps with a new sixth district, something a majority of respondents to a city survey conducted by the study group said they want and which population growth over the last decade supports. If Raleigh gets a new sixth district, it will come after this year’s elections, so these new districts will only likely be in place for one election cycle.
All three of the staff-drawn options moved minority precincts in minority-majority districts (Districts B and C) into majority-white Districts A, D, and E rather than vice-versa, which advocates say dilutes the voting power of Black and Hispanic residents. Residents had opportunities to voice their concerns at two study group meetings in December, plus two additional community meetings, and could also email comments to the study group, but the study group members could not suggest modifications to the three map options or propose a different redistricting scenario.
After the study group gave its feedback to the council, the majority of council members voted in favor of a redistricting proposal that reduced minority populations in District B from 62 percent to 54 percent.
Planning director Ken Bowers said the council chose the redistricting scenario that achieved population balance across the districts, with all districts around 2 percent deviation; the boundaries better followed major transportation corridors; future annexation areas were more evenly divided between Districts B and C; the diversity of districts was “largely maintained,” and District B had room to grow through future annexation, Bowers said.
The public hearing
Local community members were emotional when they spoke about the redistricting proposal at the public hearing last week before the council vote.
“I’d like you to keep my community of immigrant families together in District B,” said Angeline Echeverria, a longtime Brentwood resident. “We deserve to be part of a district that takes into consideration the common experiences of migration, language barriers, and the racial and ethnic discrimination that unites us with established Black communities in our area.”
Several nonprofit leaders also spoke out against the new map, including some who had previously been invited to give input on the redistricting process. During study group meetings last year, feedback from the groups was mixed. Speakers were optimistic about the approach the city was taking toward redistricting but also noted several potential issues with the proposed maps.
On Tuesday, it was clear these groups ultimately felt left out of the redistricting process they had been invited to participate in.
Byron Laws, of the NC Counts Coalition, said the study group members ignored his group’s feedback. While the city did add an additional listening session at the Green Road Community Center, “many people did not feel welcome,” Laws said.
“We provided you all with information on what our communities need and some of those (comments) were ignored,” he said.
Laws continued to speak even after Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin reminded him that his one minute of time was up.
“This matters,” he said. “The fact that you have this many people here and they’re only allowed to speak for one minute, that’s the issue. I’m representing a group that you all actually reached out to … You asked us to speak on this matter and that’s why I’m here. Because we did the work, we studied, we looked at the data to provide you all with best practices for a better map.”
Maria Gonzalez, of El Pueblo, had similar comments. Although the city reached out to members of the Latino community, their voices ultimately went unheard, she said. City officials did not give people ample time to voice their concerns during the listening sessions, she added.
“We even tried to speak one-on-one after the session but were brushed off each time,” Gonzalez said. “This was a chance for community leaders to speak out on an issue that directly impacts their life and they were outright ignored.”
Bowers was put in the hot seat when he summarized input the study group received from nonprofits. In his initial presentation, Bowers said the nonprofits “had many observations but uncovered no significant flaws in the districts that were proposed.”
Later, Bowers acknowledged that several nonprofits raised the same concerns commenters had—that the voting power of minority communities would be diluted—but said, “They did not consider, at the time, it to be an objectionable change in the racial demographics of the districts.” Bowers specifically cited the Southern Coalition for Social Justice as saying the changes would not have a significant impact.
Despite the criticism leveled at the new map (and the process by which it was drawn), several council members continued to defend it.
“I think the process that’s brought us to this point is a vast improvement over what we’ve done in the past,” said councilman Patrick Buffkin. “It’s involved public comment. It’s been an unprecedented level of transparency in the redistricting process that used to be handled behind closed doors, without public input, with districts drawn by politicians.”
A Look at the Facts:
Did the Southern Coalition for Social Justice support the new map when it was first presented?
Katelin Kaiser, counsel for voting rights for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, made a presentation to the study group in December. At that time, Kaiser noted the lower percentage of minorities in District B but said despite the difference, “(We believe) voters of color will still have the opportunity to elect their candidates of choice.”
Throughout her presentation, however, Kaiser emphasized the importance of community feedback and acknowledged that the coalition’s analysis was not community-vetted. At that time, she said the coalition’s presentation may not take into account the concerns of people affected, and the city should continue outreach and consider the input of residents.
“What is essential to this process and might be missing from our presentation is local community knowledge and understanding,” Kaiser said. “Although these changes are slight, they will have an impact on where the community sees themselves, and if they are moved out of their communities of interest, so it’s important to receive that feedback.”
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Kaiser said the coalition supports the community’s concerns about the new map splitting minority communities.
“There’s a false narrative of transparency being provided by the city,” Kaiser said during a phone call Wednesday. “One of the things I said (in December) was that these maps really mean nothing unless there is community input. If community members are not happy with scenarios 1, 2, and 3, the city needs to draw an alternative map … or make adjustments. Obviously, that didn’t happen here.”
In a letter to the council outlining the nonprofit’s concerns (see below), Kaiser asked the council to call a special meeting to amend or annul the adopted map and adopt a revised map “with additional opportunities for meaningful community input and public comment as part of the process.”
“It is disappointing the City Council did not understand the central takeaway from SCSJ’s presentation: Raleigh should listen to residents’ lived experiences and create a transparent redistricting process trusted by residents,” Kaiser wrote.
What is Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act?
Opponents of the new map argue it was not in compliance with Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Among other things, that section prohibits practices denying minority voters an equal opportunity “to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.”
“A violation of this type is sometimes called ‘vote dilution,’” stated a report from the Brennan Center for Justice. According to the report, district lines can’t dilute the voting power of minorities if:
• A minority community can fit reasonably in a geographically compact district;
• Voting-age minorities would represent a majority of the voters in that district;
• The minority population would usually vote for the same candidate;
• The white population would usually vote for a different candidate; and
• The minority vote is not otherwise protected given the “totality of the circumstances.”
Does Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act apply to municipalities like Raleigh?
Yes. Section 2 “remains in full force everywhere,” according to Robert Joyce, a lawyer and professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
“Historically the Voting Rights Act of 1965 had two operative parts,” Joyce wrote in an email. “Section 2 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race in matters related to voting everywhere in the country.”
The other part, Section 5, required states like North Carolina, which had been particularly discriminatory preceding the Voting Rights Act, to obtain a “pre-clearance” for any changes to election law or practice.
“In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the measure used to determine which parts of the country were to be subject to Section 5 had become sufficiently outdated that it could no longer be used,” Joyce wrote. “So Section 5 is no longer enforced and there is no longer a ‘pre-clearance’ requirement anywhere.”
The two sections are easy to mix up, Joyce says, adding that was probably what happened in a question-and-answer exchange between councilman Patrick Buffkin and the city attorney during the Raleigh city council meeting.
Was the redistricting process transparent?
Yes. Transparency means officials act openly and citizens know what decisions they make. Additionally, people affected by those decisions know about the data and process that leads to them. While the public was not invited to weigh in on the maps the city staff proposed, the study group’s discussions of redistricting and the proposed maps were public. People could view the decision-making process and the data given to city council members.
This year’s redistricting process was much more transparent than the 2010 redistricting process, which happened behind closed doors. Still, the process was not transparent enough to satisfy some voting rights advocates.
Did the city engage the community?
No. The city held two meetings, four listening sessions, conducted surveys, sent emails, provided information on social media, and gathered data and comments from community members but did not seem to make any adjustments to the maps or the redistricting process based on community feedback.
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