GREENSBORO- In early February Judge Catherine Eagles, a United States district judge for the Middle District of North Carolina, ruled that Greensboro could hold a referendum on city council elections, preceding a court case challenging redistricting in the NC Senate.
Judge Eagles ruled that the Greensboro populace shouldn’t have to wait for a city council referendum until after the next census in 2020, overriding a part of the bill mandating the delay.
“I was very pleased [to hear of the ruling]… It wasn’t a full victory,” City Councilman Jamal Fox said, “but nonetheless it was a great victory for our citizens in Greensboro.”
“[The court ruling] puts the power of our local back in the hands of Greensboro citizens,” City Councilman At Large Mike Barber said.
This follows the controversial 2015 Senate Bill 36, sponsored by Senator Trudy Wade (R-Guilford), which would affect this year’s city council elections.
The City of Greensboro and eight residents – represented by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice – are suing to stop the law. No one firmly stepped up to defend it, with the original group of defendants dropping it as ‘futile,’ so defense fell to Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne.
The bill would change how Greensboro elected its city council members. The original setup consisted of one mayor, three at-large members, and five district representative. The bill redraws the city into eight districts, from which the city would elect its council members. This would also make the four minority incumbent council members run against each other.
These changes have been considered overreach by the NC General Assembly, as this bill would make Greensboro the only city in North Carolina to be redistricted by the state government, rather than local.
“I wasn’t pleased because it was outside the role of state government,” Barber said.
The Senate bill was originally separate, but was later merged with House Bill 263, an unrelated bill for Trinity, NC that modified its governing body and elections.
“I was a little taken aback [to hear of the redistricting],” Hightower said. “I did not hear what the justification behind the map was… I was very surprised that Raleigh had taken significant interest in Guilford County.”
Upon passage, the bill immediately sparked controversy, citizens feeling that their voting power was being subverted.
“We’ve had hundreds of texts, calls, emails,” At Large City Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter stated. “Plus a forum, some with thousands. There was an overwhelming response that citizens were not happy, and wanted to decide how districts were drawn.”
“I can say based on emails, phone calls, and people stopping me on the street that the overwhelming majority were opposed to redistricting,” Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said, as quoted by ‘News & Record’.
Wade said that the redistricting would help black voters, and had been requested by her constituents, but others expressed doubts.
“It’s a bad piece of legislature,” Fox said. “Some citizens are overrepresented [in districting], and others are underrepresented… It dilutes the vote of the people every time you have gerrymandering”
The trial, presided over by Eagles, was intended to determine whether these new districts were racially-gerrymandered. According to Senator Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford), the proposed map created five strongly Republican districts and three Democrat and minority districts.
“African American voters were put into [fewer] districts and did not have the same vote over what happened in the city as white voters,” Robinson said, as quoted by ‘News & Record’.
“We said that if citizens wanted change, then they’d have change,” Hightower said. “that they should have a referendum, not mandate… Citizens should have the right to participate in their own democracy.”
Council members also said that the law was overtly partisan and unilateral, singling out Greensboro for political reasons.
“It’s one thing in campaigns to be partisan,” Fox said, “but it’s another to do it in legislation. You must have compromise… It needs to be bipartisan, and have input from both sides of the aisle.”
City council members expressed confidence in Greensboro prevailing in the court case.
“I believe the future is bright for Greensboro citizens,” Fox said, regarding the redistricting case’s future.
“I personally am eager and willing to work with lawmakers [on a solution],” Barber stated.