Bob Penman of Candler discusses his concerns about the potential disenfranchisement of military absentee voters if congressional districts are redrawn during the current elections cycle as Penman addresses a legislative hearing Feb. 15 at UNC Asheville. Frank Taylor/Carolina Public Press

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article dealing with public hearings on drawing new election districts was updated Wednesday, Feb. 17, to reflect new developments. Additional developments since that time are not reflected, but are discussed in a later article examining the redistricting plan that was approved by the state Senate on Thursday.

Residents attending public hearings on potential redistricting Monday morning across North Carolina, including at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, offered a range of starkly different evaluations of the state’s congressional district map.

Some defended the current Republican-drawn map. Others condemned it in favor of maps Democrats drew when they were in power. And others criticized the partisan process by which district lines have been drawn for many years regardless of who has been in power.

In addition, speakers focused on the potential for disenfranchisement of voters. Those who want new maps immediately warned that the current map dilutes the voice of African American voters. Those who want to keep the existing map pointed to absentee voters, including many military members, who have already cast votes in the March 15 primaries.

Among the speakers who defended the status quo, several also acknowledged that lawmakers may have to redraw the map due to a recent court ruling. In that case, they urged restraint, with an effort to build compact districts that avoid splitting precincts and smaller counties.

Comments at the Asheville site were as divided as those elsewhere.

Bob Penman of Candler, who described himself as retired military, described the existing districts as equitable and warned against disallowing absentee ballots that have already been “mailed and voted.”

Buncombe County resident Charles Edwards shared the story of helping a disabled African American woman vote during a recent election and hearing her stories of segregation, including the military service of two brothers in segregated units during World War II. “These are the people whom the North Carolina Legislature has been doing its best to disenfranchise,” he said.

Tom Byers of Asheville urged the General Assembly to adopt the same sort of nonpartisan process used in many other states. Although the compactness and clarity of districts is not an issue on which the courts objected, Byers and other speakers criticized this aspect of the districts. He described an experience in which the U.S. Capitol software that helps constituents reach out to their members of Congress placed him in the wrong district due to the way the city of Asheville has been gerrymandered.

What’s at stake

A federal trial court recently ruled that the districts drawn in 2011, which were used as the basis of congressional elections in 2012 and 2014, were unconstitutional because legislators relied too heavily on the race of voting age residents to determine which census blocks were assigned to which districts.

Even though only the 1st and 12th districts were found to be improper, fixing those would potentially result in the reshaping of the state’s other 12 districts. Two of the three Western North Carolina districts have areas that are adjacent to the 12th and are likely to be redrawn in part.

Maps are normally redrawn every 10 years following the release of the U.S. Census, which shows shifts in population over the previous decade. Population growth resulted in a 13th congressional district beginning in the 2002 elections. The state narrowly missed out on the creation of a 14th district beginning in 2012. Both of those created situations in which lawmakers could not simply keep existing maps in place and had to move some voters between districts.

But the way in which that was done has drawn criticism and lawsuits. Conservative Democrats led the legal charge against the Democratically controlled General Assembly in the 1990s, leading to the court-ordered re-drawing of new districts.

While the current map is similar in some respects to districts that were drawn by Democratic majorities since 2001, the Republican majority that took control in 2011 added substantial numbers of black voters to District 1, located primarily in the northeast, and District 12, which snakes along Interstate 85 to combine majority-black areas of several large Piedmont cities.

Since those districts had already consistently elected African Americans to Congress since they were drawn for that purpose in 1992, the federal panel found that lawmakers could not justify this action as a way of ensuring a stronger black voice in congressional elections. Justices deduced that it was instead intended to reduce the influence of black voters, who have tended to vote Democratic, in other districts surrounding the two in question.

The judges ordered lawmakers to draw new districts by Feb. 19. Legislators have appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. They are seeking an emergency stay of the decision because the deadline would require such an accelerated process and because absentee ballots have already been mailed out, with thousands already mailed back.

But Chief Justice John Roberts gave plaintiffs in the case until Tuesday to respond to the state’s request for a stay. They eventually issued a statement in line with many of the pro-Democratic speakers at Monday’s hearings, condemning the over-use of race in drawing districts and warning against allowing further elections under “illegal” districts. As of late Wednesday, there was no announcement on the stay request.

With the possibility of no word on a stay being denied or granted in time to complete the process, lawmakers announced Monday’s hearings on Friday, in an apparent effort to start the redistricting process in case it’s necessary.

Criticism and defense

Several speakers at Monday’s hearings complained about this decision from lawmakers, noting the extremely short notice. Winter weather across northern counties also affected turnout Monday. A hearing site for Guilford Technical College in Greensboro was closed to the weather. Although a site in Roanoke Rapids was open, poor road conditions apparently contributed to very poor attendance, even though that region is the heart of one of the main areas in question, District 1. Some speakers said the events  should have been postponed until conditions improved.

Speakers also criticized lawmakers’ decision to have live links at each of the sites and rotate between them, instead of allowing each site to conduct its own hearing simultaneously. With each speaker allotted five minutes, the result was a drawn-out process with many speakers waiting hours and others giving up long before their names were called. Repeated problems with the audio also made speakers difficult to hear at times.

Although several speakers who favored keeping the existing districts criticized the courts for interfering in an ongoing process, others pointed the finger in the other direction. They blamed lawmakers for unnecessarily creating the controversial map during the 2011 process, setting up the current situation and all of its inherent costs and confusion.

Several speakers also noted that elections officials should have the address of everyone who has already requested an absentee ballot and should be able to issue them new ones as soon as new districts are created. Some discussed weighing the potential harm done to groups of voters and finding that the damage to absentee voters was minimal in comparison to the threat to black voters. Doing what is right, outweighs all other considerations, they said.

“Much of this may not have to do with racism and socialism, (but) it does have to do with doing what is right,” said Clinton Williams of Northampton County, who addressed the Roanoke Rapids hearing site.

But others viewed the situation differently. Some pointed to 1998 when congressional primaries had to be held in September to accommodate new districts after other primaries were conducted in May. The turnout for the Congressional vote was only about a fifth of what it had been for the vote in the spring. These speakers warned that this pointed to a much more severe level of disenfranchisement of elections are not conducted at the same time.

Many speakers who criticized the existing districts accused Republican legislators of shameful behavior for drawing unconstitutional and racist districts, though both questions have only been decided by a trial court and are under appeal to the Supreme Court.

N.C. Republican Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse defended GOP legislators against charges of racism in his comments from the Raleigh hearing site. He said his party favors a complete end to the use of race in determining district lines and wondered whether the Democratic Party would agree to the same. Legislators made good on this proposal as the week progressed.

Looking ahead

Monday’s comments may amount to very little if the Supreme Court does grant an emergency stay. Barring that, lawmakers said they would consider the comments as they carve out new maps later this week ahead of Friday’s deadline.

An idea of what those new maps might look like emerged late Wednesday as state media reported that Republicans unveiled a scheme with no consideration of race at all and substantial changes in nearly every district. The new map would include three heavily Democratic districts and 10 than lean Republican, though lawmakers said some of the pro-GOP districts would actually be more competitive than those in the current district map. The reaction from Democrats was generally unfavorable.

Even with a stay, the case appears bound for the Supreme Court. It’s likely fate there looks a bit different this week, with the passing of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia on Saturday. A political battle over filling his seat could spill over into the resolution of North Carolina’s election map.

If President Barrack Obama or a Democratic successor picks a liberal justice to replace Scalia, the balance of a court that often ruled 5-4 would swing to the left. On the other hand, if the decision is left to a Republican successor who might pick a conservative justice, the court would likely remain as it has been for some time.

But another possibility is that the case for North Carolina would be heard while the seat is empty, creating the strong possibility of a 4-4 deadlock. That would leave the lower court’s ruling intact, though it would do so without creating any precedent.

Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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