RALEIGH, N.C. — Past election results can be considered in drawing North Carolina’s new General Assembly districts later this month but not racial information about voters, according to ground rules Republicans pushed through redistricting committees Thursday.
The party-line votes on the GOP-controlled House and Senate panels for mapmaking criteria run counter to the wishes of most speakers during a public hearing last week who pleaded for politics to be left out of the process. And Democratic committee members scratched their heads when Republican leaders said racial data wouldn’t be examined at all even though the boundaries still must comply with the U.S. Voting Rights Act.
“How are you going to prove to the court that you did not violate their order in terms of racial gerrymandering?” Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham County Democrat, asked House Redistricting Committee chairman David Lewis. “You cannot escape the fact that race has to be in there somewhere.”
Federal judges last year struck down 28 House and Senate districts because they said GOP legislators relied too heavily on race when drawing them in 2011. Their ruling, which wasn’t finalized until a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June, means legislators are scrambling this month to adjust those and several dozen adjacent districts and approve them before a Sept. 1 deadline.
Lewis said his reading of the August 2016 ruling by a three-judge panel found that legislators had not offered substantial evidence to justify their focus on using race in drawing districts to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
“Therefore, we do not believe it is appropriate given the court’s order in this case for these committees to consider race when drawing districts,” said Lewis, a Harnett County Republican.
All but one of the 28 challenged districts had majority black voting-age populations. Although Democrats have said that Republicans needlessly drew too many such districts to benefit GOP candidates in surrounding districts, they say protections to ensure the political influence of black voters doesn’t erode are still needed. The approved maps are subject to review by the three-judge panel and would first be used in the November 2018 elections.
“We live in the South,” said Forsyth County Sen. Paul Lowe, who like Michaux is black. “When in the South has race not been a factor? Because what I’m hearing doesn’t really add up.”
Republican mapmakers last year also reversed course on using racial data in February 2016, when another three-judge panel tossed two congressional districts as unlawful. Instead, Lewis and other Republicans decided they would rework congressional boundaries with the goal of the GOP keeping 10 of 13 U.S. House seats.
Lewis didn’t go so far this time as to offer criteria to specifically try to keep the party’s current supermajorities in the state House and Senate, which were helped by the current 2011 maps. But despite calls by speakers last week, Lewis said redistricting isn’t politically blind. Statewide election results for governor, president and U.S. Senate routinely have been used to project whether a district leans to the left or right.
“Every result from where a line is drawn will be an inherently political thing,” Lewis said. “It is right and relevant to review past performance in drawing districts.”
But Sen. Terry Van Duyn, a Buncombe County Democrat, said public speakers last year clearly “want us to move away from using redistricting for political advantage.”
Republicans also agreed that the number of new districts containing two or more current legislators should be minimized. But Lewis said some “double bunking” will have to occur given other redistricting requirements.
GOP legislative leaders said the criteria will now go to an outside mapmaker they’ve hired with taxpayer money — the same one used in 2011. Lewis said preliminary maps are planned to be released before an anticipated public hearing Aug. 22 or 23. The first votes by the full General Assembly could come Aug 24.