With a court imposed deadline less than six weeks away for House elections, state officials have started the process of redrawing seven Wake County legislative districts that a state court last year ruled were unconstitutional.
The General Assembly did not appeal the ruling by a special three-judge panel, but it came too late in the year for the court to order new districts in last year’s elections.
Democrats swept Wake County’s 11 House districts in 2018, ousting three GOP legislators.
At a meeting Thursday, Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, N.C. House Redistricting Committee chairman, said the new process would only involve redrawing seven of the 11 districts and move on a somewhat faster track than the statewide redraw in 2017. Four House districts, 36, 37, 40 and 41, are to revert to the boundaries they had from 2012-16, according to the court order.
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The three-judge panel ruled that when the legislature redrew districts in 2017 it went too far in redrawing the additional four districts in Wake County. By redrawing districts that did not need to be redrawn, the judges said, the legislature violated the state constitution’s prohibition against midcycle redistricting.
Lewis said the committee will give legislators and any outside organizations and individuals who want to propose new maps until June 4 to submit them to the committee, which will meet again June 6 to consider proposals.
The General Assembly website will also have a link for submitting public comments to the committee, he said. The legislature is working to meet a July 1 deadline for the new maps.
Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause of North Carolina, said he and other voting rights advocates will keep a close eye on how the legislature redraws the new districts. He’s already worried about some of the criteria that will be permitted under the process proposed Thursday, particularly the use of data from recent election results and the location of the residences of incumbents.
“It’s a flawed process,” Phillips said in an interview with Carolina Public Press.
“It’s not blind to politics. It’s also considering incumbency protection, and those are two elements of the criteria that we feel shouldn’t be considered.”
Phillips said having to draw new districts so late in the cycle is another example that North Carolina has a broken redistricting process. The new effort, he said, still contains “all the things that create the problems.”
Allison Riggs, senior voting rights attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the organization will also keep a close eye on the process to make sure the districts that were changed unconstitutionally are fixed correctly.
“We expect that the legislature will abide by the court order and restore the districts in question to their original formation without trading one constitutional violation for another,” she said.
Common Cause and the legislature head to court in mid-July for arguments before the same three-judge panel in a partisan redistricting challenge.
Although the current redraw isn’t due to a partisanship challenge, Phillips said one of the things he’ll be watching for in the Wake districts is any sign of partisan gerrymandering in the product coming out of the committee.
“At least where the districts don’t have unusual shapes that you can tie to a desire to gain a partisan advantage,” he said.
Forced to use old data
Despite the redraw, once adopted the new districts will still be distorted due to huge changes in population in the fast growing county.
By law, the new districts must be drawn based on the data from the 2010 census. Since then, Wake County has added roughly 100,000 new residents, pushing the population estimate close to 1.1 million.
Divided evenly, that would mean that Wake districts represent about 100,000 residents, while the ideal district population based on the 2010 census would be at 79,462. The next full redistricting takes place during the 2021 legislative session after the 2020 census.
While the redraw comes late in the current 10-year cycle, it is not unprecedented in North Carolina’s contentious redistricting history.
In March 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the redrawing of districts challenged by Pender County commissioners, who argued that the legislature’s interpretation of the Voting Rights Act resulted in districts that split the county and violated a provision in the state constitution that counties should be kept whole whenever possible.
A new plan was filed in the House in early May and became law on June 16, 2009.
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