NC Congressional Districts Head Back To State Supreme Court For Review

NC Congressional Districts Head Back To State Supreme Court For Review

6:14am Aug 31, 2015
State Senate District 28 in Guilford County, represented by Sen. Gladys Robinson.
N.C. General Assembly

North Carolina’s disputed congressional maps are headed back to the state Supreme Court Monday, where the justices will be looking at how prominently the role of race played in drawing the lines.

The Brown Recreation Center in southern Greensboro hummed with the sound of children playing during an after-school program last week.

But on Election Day, this gym transforms into one of the biggest precincts in Guilford County. More than 3,000 people are registered to vote here. It’s part of a district that has sent State Sen. Gladys Robinson to Raleigh since 2010, when she won by putting together a coalition of black and white voters.

But she says the district has changed since she’s been here. 

“My district probably looks like a lake with tributaries going everywhere. If you can think of a lake and it has a tributary going east, west, north, south, halfway into the north - it’s all over the place," she says.

The change wasn’t just geographic, it was also demographic. When they redrew the maps in 2011, the Republican legislature mandated that minority districts like Robinson’s had to have at least 50 percent minority voters. As a result, she says the number of blacks in her district increased by 15 to 20 percent.

“So if you create fewer districts that are minority - and that’s what happened – then you create more that are more Republican and white. And so that is not what voter participation is about. If you choose to live in that neighborhood you ought to be able to vote in that neighborhood.”

Critics call it “bleaching”, meaning that by concentrating black voters into fewer minority districts, it makes the districts around them whiter and gives Republicans a chance to win more districts.

Gene Mazo specializes in election law at Wake Forest University’s School of Law. He says it’s legal for a party to draw itself an advantage in the electoral maps, but they have to be careful.

“It is illegal to district on the basis of race. Now, the complicated issue is that party and race often match. And so whether the legislature based on party or race is not always easy to tease out.”

The maps have gone through several federal and state hurdles and survived. In December, the state’s highest court upheld them.

But earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court took a hard look at how southern states were drawing their maps, paying particular attention to how black districts were formed. They threw out Alabama’s maps, arguing that lawmakers focused on race above all other factors when they drew them.

Shortly afterwards, they also vacated North Carolina's maps for similar reasons.

The authors of the state’s maps – State Rep. David Lewis and State Sen. Bob Rucho – issued a statement following the court’s ruling. They said the ruling was not unexpected and they felt the maps would once again be found to be constitutional.

WFDD spoke with Rucho in November, and he defended the districts.

“To say that we drew them with an advantage is totally false primarily because the rules on the Voting Rights Act, on the one-person-one-vote,  and the state constitutional requirement of whole counties means that you have to follow the law," he says.

When they upheld the maps in December, the state’s supreme court justices made no secret of the fact that it struggled to determine how race was used to draw the state’s lines.

The referred to what they called a “cat’s cradle of factors” that lawmakers faced when drawing the lines, and concluded that they couldn’t tell if race what the main factor the legislature used.

Mazo says it’s a reflection of how complicated the issue of race can be.

“The court - not only in redistricting but in affirmative action, and university admissions and all kinds of other spheres - has told us that we could use race as a factor but it can’t be the predominant factor," he says. "And what that means exactly is not only unclear, but it has become the source of tension in our society and the source of endless litigation. And redistricting in North Carolina is no exception to that phenomenon.”

Today’s case marks the second time in as many months that a state voting change has faced a major legal challenge.  Last month a federal judge in Winston-Salem heard arguments that sweeping changes to the election laws in 2013 unfairly targeted minority voters. No decision has been reached in that case.

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