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N.C. Court strikes blow against gerrymandering

A rally to end gerrymandering outside the Supreme Court on 3/26/19, as the Justices hear a Maryland and North Carolina case on gerrymandering. Photo by Victoria Pickering/A rally to end gerrymandering outside the Supreme Court on 3/26/19, as the Justices hear a Maryland and North Carolina case on gerrymandering.

By Journey Rucker

Howard University News Service

The line through the heart of Aggieland is gone. The political border that bisected the campus of North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro and its nearby neighborhoods no longer fractures the power of Democratic voters in the state.

A panel of three state court judges approved a redistricting map that put into one all of the city and surrounding Guilford County, and combined it with the entire population of Winston Salem. The new district is expected to choose a Democrat to replace the current Republican representing it in Congress.

The new map also gives Democrats the potential to wrest control of another House seat. It creates a single district for all of Wake County, home to the capital city of Raleigh, and, along with Durham and Chapel Hill, part of the populous urban center known as the Research Triangle.

If both newly-drawn districts vote as projected, the Republican edge in the North Carolina delegation could be 8-5, two less than it is now. Petitioners who had asked the court to order redistricting to offset what they called “the most brazen partisan gerrymander in American history” had hoped for more.

“After nearly a decade of voting in some of the most gerrymandered districts in the country, courts have put new maps in place that are an improvement over the status quo, but the people still deserve better,” former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who heads the group that brought the lawsuit, said after the decision was announced.

A primary concern of the three-judge panel’s ruling was putting a new map in place in time to avoid last minute preparations for spring primary elections that could have resulted in lower voter turnout and additional costs for local governments.

“As a practical matter, in the court’s view, there is simply not sufficient time to fully evaluate the factual record necessary to decide the constitutional challenges of the congressional districts without significantly delaying the primary elections,” Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway wrote.

“Although one can certainly argue that the process was flawed or that the result was far from ideal,” Ridgeway said, “inevitably the end result is that the grievously flawed 2016 map has been replaced.”

Republican leaders in the state welcomed the December 2 decision as closure to several redistricting battles. “The Democratic Party’s scheme to use judges to effectuate a Democratic gerrymander has failed. Now that a unanimous, bipartisan court has denied the plaintiffs’ last-minute challenge to the 2019 Congressional map…we can finally put this decade of relentless litigation behind us,” Republican state Sen. Ralph Hise said.

State Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin expressed frustration with the decision. “North Carolina Republicans yet again run out the clock on fair maps, denying justice to North Carolina voters and forcing our state to go another election using undemocratic district lines,” he said. “North Carolina Democrats will not stop fighting for truly fair maps where voters—not undemocratically elected politicians—choose their representatives.”

The 2016 map of North Carolina’s Congressional districts had been drawn by Republicans with a stated objective of securing a partisan advantage in that year’s elections. The plan worked. Republicans won about half of that statewide vote, yet captured about three fourths of the state’s seats in the House of Representatives, 9 of 13.

Challenges to the fairness of the map worked their way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to rule on the merits of the case on grounds that such matters are best left for the states to decide.

“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote on behalf of the court’s more conservative members, who prevailed in a 5-4 decision announced in June.

Three months later, the Holder-led group, which is allied with the Democratic Party, filed its suit in North Carolina Superior Court. It asserted that the map violated state laws guaranteeing equal protection, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, as well as the state constitution’s free elections clause.

The same three-judge panel that ultimately ruled on the Congressional maps had cited those specific grounds earlier and thrown out the state’s map for legislative districts. New lines were drawn for those districts and accepted by the court in late October.

At about the same time, the panel rejected the June 16 Congressional districts map challenged by the Holder-led group, and forbade its use in the upcoming primary elections. The state legislature responded, and voted along partisan lines to approve the new map that the court subsequently accepted.

Black voters and Democratic voters are virtually one and the same in North Carolina. The state’s black population is rooted in three urban centers—the Piedmont Triad cities of Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem; the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle area; and the suburbs and city of Charlotte, a regional financial hub and the so-called “Queen City” of the state.

An analysis by The Washington Post of the state’s old Congressional districts contended that if the Triad cities were combined, the resulting population would be almost large enough to have a district of its own.

The new district includes all of Greensboro, all of Guilford County, and all of Winston Salem, though not High Point. The result is a district that is about one-third black and about half black and Latino that is projected to choose a Democrat to represent an area now in Republican hands.

Under the 2016, if the population of the Research Triangle were combined with those in the northeastern sections of the state, three congressional districts could be formed “that would be competitive for nonwhites and Democrats,”  The Post reported. Instead, they have been “packed” into two Democratic Districts and lumped with Republican suburbs into a single district of their own.

The new map continues to divide the Research Triangle area, which has large proportions of black and Hispanic voters, and makes Wake County, the home of Raleigh, its own district.

Wake County’s population is nearly one-third black and Latino, about the same as the old district, which included only part of the county. That new district is the other one expected to go from Republican to Democratic in next year’s election.

Durham County, whose population is half black and Latino, remains in the 1st district, which has voted consistently Democratic for decades and has sent a black representative to Congress since 1992.

The 12th Congressional district, which is based in Charlotte and currently represented by Rep. Alma S. Adams, is solidly Democratic and has had a black representative in the House since Mel Watt was first elected in 1992. Adams, an alumna of A&T, succeeded Watt after he was named director of the Federal Housing Financing Agency in 2014, and has held the seat since then.

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