First published Jan. 11.
Updated Jan. 13.

The News & Observer reports today that the three-judge panel heard testimony Thursday on the consolidated suit challenging North Carolina’s new voting districts. State and GOP leaders argued that opponents of the plan “either disregard or don’t understand the law when they criticize the maps Republicans have drawn,” reported Lynn Bonner. The panel did not, however, issue a ruling

Buncombe County Commission Chair David Gantt (seated, far right, at a commission meeting on Tuesday) was the only plaintiff from Western North Carolina to be named in the first lawsuit filed to challenge the state’s redistricting plan. The plan will, if approved, place Asheville in the 10th Congressional District for the first time in more than 70 years. A court hearing on the plan is scheduled for Thursday. Angie Newsome/Carolina Public Press

David Gantt is, for one

The redistricting battle in North Carolina has a little bit of everything. Courtroom drama? Check. Partisan political maneuvering? Check. Decade-long implications for congressional and statewide races? Check.

What it’s missing, for the most part, is a Western North Carolina angle. But there is at least one exception: Buncombe County Commissioner Chair David Gantt.

A lawsuit filed on Nov. 3 in Wake County Superior Court on behalf of Democratic lawmakers and voters alleged that the new maps drawn by Republicans after the 2010 census packed African American voters into a limited number of districts to reduce their voting impact.

Despite the fact that plans were “pre-cleared” by the U.S. Department of Justice, Democrats allege that they fly in the face of equal protection guarantees in the federal and state constitutions. Additionally, they contend that the re-drawn districts don’t respect county and precinct lines in violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 113-page lawsuit is filled with maps and statistics supporting the accusations of racially influenced redistricting. [PDF]

In that lawsuit, 45 plaintiffs were listed. Mecklenburg County boasted seven, Cumberland County five, and Guilford County six. These counties, of course, are home to Charlotte, Fayetteville and Greensboro, three of the state’s largest cities.

But there was only one plaintiff in this case from any place west of Mecklenburg County: David Gantt.

“I’ve always made my availability known to the Democratic Party,” Gantt said, explaining his inclusion. “I was called and asked.”

Edwin Speas, lead counsel on the lawsuit, confirmed Gantt’s take.

‘I was called and asked.’
David Gantt, Buncombe County Commission chair

“We talked to various people in the western part of the state about who might be a good plaintiff,” he said. The search led him to Gantt, who is finishing up his fourth term and 16th year as a commissioner. Last December, Gantt announced plans to run again for commission chair in November’s elections.

Because Speas isn’t challenging the redrawing of any other districts west of Mecklenburg County, he needed just one plaintiff from the area.

When a redistricting plan is challenged on a legal basis, there must be at least one plaintiff who lives within each contested district, and Gantt’s participation in the suit represents Asheville in the 10th Congressional District.

Until the new maps were drawn, Asheville had belonged to the 11th District for more than 70 years, since the district was re-established, in 1933, after a 90-year absence. The 11th district encompasses the westernmost part of the state and is currently represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by Heath Shuler, a Democrat.

If the new plans stand up in court, however, the bulk of Asheville would be grouped with the 10th District, which includes Mooresville, Shelby and Hickory, and is represented by U.S. Rep. Patrick McHenry, a Republican.

The practical effect of the change, according to Democrats, will be that the 11th District will go to Republicans without Asheville. The 10th District will absorb Asheville’s Democrats, but retain a conservative majority.

“Basically, they put us in a district all the way down to Gastonia, which is a different media market, different geography, different culture and a different region,” Gantt said. “And it didn’t make any sense. Any of it.”

A second lawsuit, filed on Nov. 4, was a joint effort by citizen action groups like the NAACP and the League of Women Voters. [PDF] The suit makes similar claims, and the two were consolidated by a three-judge panel on Dec. 16. The panel is scheduled to hear arguments on the case on Thursday.

Anita Earls, an attorney at the Coalition for Southern Justice, is set to argue against Asheville’s shift to the 10th District. She claims the Republicans indulged in precinct splitting along racial lines within the city itself.

“The state constitution requires that any district, including congressional districts, be geographically compact and follow communities of interest,” Earls said. “There was a partisan goal.” Within the precincts in Asheville, Earls alleged that the Republicans “were essentially using race as a proxy for partisan identification.”

But like Speas, Earls included just one plaintiff from west of Mecklenburg County: Martha Gardenhight, an Asheville resident and NAACP member.

Why, then, was the western part of the state so under-represented in both lawsuits challenging redistricting?

William Sabo, a political science professor at UNC-Asheville with decades of experience observing North Carolina politics, said that aside from Asheville, race doesn’t play a huge part in the politics of the westernmost districts.

“You have to remember,” he said, “the western part of the state is predominantly white. Because race has been the critical factor when courts intervene in redistricting, there’s no legal basis that the western part of the state can really emphasize. If race is the dominant criteria that the judges will use to see if the districts are drawn fairly, it’s pretty much irrelevant out here.”

‘If race is the dominant criteria that the judges will use to see if the districts are drawn fairly, it’s pretty much irrelevant out here.’
William Sabo, UNC-Asheville political science professor

Sabo noted that the eastern part of the state and the urban areas of the Piedmont contain the greatest percentage of African American voters, hence their greater representation among the plaintiffs in each original lawsuit.

At the time of the 2010 election, the 11th District was 88 percent white and only 4.6 percent African American (numbers that will grow even more extreme wih Asheville’s potential move to the 10th), while the 10th District was 82.9 percent white and 8.2 percent African American. By contrast, the 12th District, which encompasses most of Charlotte, was 40.8 percent white and 43.8 percent African American.

(Click here to read more about the 11th District in a profile compiled by The New York Times for the 2010 elections. Also, here is the newspaper’s profile on the 10th District, also compiled for the 2010 elections.)

In other words, the predominance of white voters meant that there was less opportunity for racial gerrymandering in the west.

Earls confirmed Sabo’s take. “We definitely found examples of precincts that were divided on the basis of race in Asheville,” she said, “but not so much in the other parts of the western part of the state.”

Speas concurred. “If you look at the maps, they divided far fewer counties in the western part of the state and drew far fewer odd-shaped districts,” he said.

As a result of the limited redistricting drama in the west, Sabo believes that voters in the 10th and 11thdistricts have turned their focus to more pressing issues.

“The thing’s that’s got people most bent out of shape in Buncombe County is the mandated districting of the county commission,” he said, referring to a measure passed by the General Assembly on May 19. Originally introduced by Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe, the bill changed county elections from an at-large process to one that obeyed House redistricting lines. Read the bill here.

Gantt also mentioned the bill.

“It’s the first time it’s happened in the history of Buncombe County, since it was formed in 1791,” he said. “It wasn’t asked for, there were no hearings, and there was no feedback.”

Sabo believes the redistricting will hand Republicans at least two to three commissioner spots, where previously they held none.

About to the statewide challenge to redistricting, the three-judge panel will hear a Republican motion to dismiss the consolidated redistricting lawsuit tomorrow, Jan. 12, and could hear a motion from the Democrats to push the primary elections back while the case is in the courts as early as Friday.

Earls said the timetable for a decision on these preliminary matters is uncertain, but that a judgment is unlikely to come until next week at the earliest.

Shane Ryan

Shane Ryan is a contributing reporter for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at shane.spr8@gmail.com.

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