Sarah Kate Purnell
Some of the state districts used in November’s election have been ruled unconstitutional by federal courts. Despite the resolution of the 13 US congressional districts earlier this year, the districts which will determine NC state legislators have not been updated.
Every ten years, congressional district lines are redrawn after the United States census. The purpose is to ensure that equal representation is given to all residents of a state, but the shape and distribution of the districts are sometimes controversial.
The thirteen congressional districts of North Carolina were drawn in 2011 by the NC state legislature, following a midterm election that saw party control shift from Democrats to Republicans. Soon after, in November 2011, opponents of the new map challenged the new districts in court. They claimed that the districts clustered minorities and Democrats into two districts, giving the rest of the state a Republican advantage.
In February of 2016, the US Supreme Court ruled that the 2011 congressional map was unconstitutional, and demanded that the districts be redrawn. The redistricting process led to confusion during the primaries within the affected districts. Despite the earlier controversy, the updated map is being used for the 2016 general election.
On August 11, 2016 a federal court ruled that the district map for the NC state legislature was unconstitutional, since it contained an illegal racial gerrymander. The current map will be used for the 2016 election season, but the court ordered lawmakers to draw a new map at the next legislative session.
Gerrymandering, the process of redistricting that gives favor or is based on race or political party, was declared illegal in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 2011 redistricting plan was ruled to demonstrate ‘egregious’ racial gerrymandering in state districts 1 and 12.
“This ruling by all three judges is a vindication of our challenge to the General Assembly of North Carolina writing racially biased ‘apartheid’ voting districts to disenfranchise the power of the African-American vote,” Rev. William Barber, NC NAACP chapter President said.
Sen. Bob Rucho (R) of Mecklenburg County, and Rep. David Lewis (R) of Harnett County issued a joint statement calling the ruling ‘disruptive’.
“Should this decision be allowed to stand, North Carolina voters will no longer know how or when they will get to cast their primary ballots in the presidential, gubernatorial, congressional and legislative elections.” Rucho and Lewis stated, “And thousands of absentee voters may have already cast ballots that could be tossed out. This decision could do far more to disenfranchise North Carolina voters than anything alleged in this case.”
Though concerned, the North Carolina primary still moved forward, as will the November election, in hopes that the new district lines will be finalized beforehand.
District 12, which previously stretched from Charlotte to Greensboro, was singled out for its narrow and confusing boundary lines.
“Plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit complained that ‘a person traveling on Interstate 85 between the two cities would exit the district multiple times, as the district’s boundaries zig zag to encircle African-American communities,” Blythe, Jarvis and Morrill of The News & Observer noted.
“The plaintiffs in this case were a group of individuals aided by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) and other groups.” Mark Binker at WRAL described, “In one of the case’s great ironies, they argued that Republicans over-applied the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The federal law, they said, was meant to protect minority voting strength but in this case was used to pack, stack and crack voting blocs to partisan advantage.”
“This case proves that the legislature was engaged in race-based redistricting, which is unconstitutional,” Barber stated. “This case will help bolster our case.”
“The Voting Rights Act continues to be necessary,” SCSJ Executive Director Anita Earls said, “but should not be used to pack black voters or minimize their influence in the political process.”
In September, the proposed new map was again challenged with gerrymander, this time not by race, but political party.
“The new map didn’t consider race, redistricting leaders said, and was designed so Republicans could retain their previous 10-3 seat advantage in the state’s congressional delegation.” Gary D. Robertson of The Robesonian described.
Other lawsuits filed since 2011 challenge NC congressional and legislative districts, and remain under review.