Raleigh, N.C. — An expert in political geography told a federal judge Thursday that the legislature drew new Wake County commissioner and school board districts based on racial and political considerations.
Overall, bigger than ideal differences in populations of various districts "appear to be motivated by the desire to create an unusual level of partisan control," said Jowei Chen, an expert in political geography and professor at the University of Michigan.
Chen was an expert witness called by groups seeking to have the new maps struck down.
The new school board map was created by lawmakers in 2013. In 2015, lawmakers passed another bill to require Wake County commissioners to run in the same districts.
Democrats have decried the move, saying that Republican lawmakers were gerrymandering the districts after losing elections rather than addressing any real problems. They point out that, in 2014, using districts drawn by a GOP-controlled board, Democrats swept all of the Board of Commissioner seats up for election.
Proponents of the new districts have argued at various point that the changes will ensure better representation of the county's rural areas and closer ties between parents the school board members who represent their children's schools. However, opponents of the plan say measures do little to achieve their stated goals.
"It's entirely possible that people from Knightdale will be represented by someone who lives by the airport," state Sen. Josh Stein, D-Wake, told the court Thursday morning.
Plaintiffs in the case include the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association and more than a dozen individuals.
The Wake County Board of Elections is the lone defendant in the case. Although the board had nothing to do with drawing the maps, it is in charge of implementing them. So, a federal appeals court decided the board should be sued over them, rather than state lawmakers.
Lawyers for the elections board did not call any witnesses. Closing arguments in the case are expected to conclude Friday.
Stein and others called by the plaintiffs on Wednesday and Thursday touched on many of the same points, saying that the newly drawn maps moved unusually quickly through the legislature and split small towns and other communities.
Chen, who has testified in other redistricting cases, said the maps varied widely from computers instructed to keep communities together and keep populations roughly even.
The new maps carve the county into two sets of districts. The first sets includes two regional super-districts, one a rural area that rings Raleigh and the other a central urban district. The other set cleaves the county into seven individual-member districts.
One of those individual member districts is centered in southeast Raleigh and contains more than 50 percent African American voters. Chen concluded that the district's construction was "clearly motivated by racial packing of African-Americans and not by partisanship," something that would not be allowed in Wake County under current redistricting rules.
Lawyers for the Wake County Board of Elections hammered Chen with a series of questions on cross-examination, criticizing him for technical deficiencies in his report such as failing to disclose how much he was paid for the case. They pressed him on whether he couldn't have set his computer models to create districts like the ones lawmakers did if he used more forgiving parameters.
The minority population of District 4 is a key point of contention in the case. Both black and white lawmakers who testified in the case point out that Wake County has elected various African-American lawmakers over the years using an at-large election system. James West, the current chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, points out that two of the board's seven current members, including himself, are black.
"I felt it is, to some degree, insulting," West said of the suggestion that there needs to be predominantly minority districts in order to elect black leaders.
Candidate filing for the 2016 elections is open until next Monday, but the two regional Board of Commissioner seats are the only ones that might be affected by a ruling in the case. The new maps don't take effect until 2018 for the rest of the Board of Commissioners, so the three seats up for election next year will be voted on countywide as usual. School board elections are nonpartisan, so candidates for those seats don't file until the summer for the November election.