Raleigh, N.C. — Senate Republicans passed their new voting district map through committee Thursday, approving it on party-line votes after some tense back-and-forth about race and politics.
The approval sets up Senate floor votes Friday and again on Monday on the court-ordered redraw of the map. The House is slated to run its own map through committee Friday, and both chambers must approve both maps before Sept. 1, the deadline set by a panel of three federal judges in the case.
The court will have final say over whether the effort produces constitutional maps and ends a lawsuit over racial gerrymandering that has lasted more than two years and went all the way to the the U.S. Supreme Court. New maps, either those approved by the General Assembly or another version approved by the court, will be used in the 2018 state House and Senate elections.
Thursday's meeting began with a couple of tweaks from Democrats that Republicans backed, moving smaller groups of voters to keep a historic African-American community intact in one Wake County district and moving another 300 or so people in Cumberland County so that a Democratic senator's second home would remain in his district.
Then it became a partisan slog of proposals and exhortations from Democrats met by talking points from the Republican majority, all repeated several times as both sides looked to expose chinks the other's armor and a court reporter took down every word for the case file. By the end, four-and-a-half hours after the meeting started, debate had grown testy, with white Republicans jostling with black Democrats over questions of race.
Efforts by Democrats to redraw districts in the urban centers of Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro produced long debate followed by expected results: Repeated 9-4 party-line votes to shoot down maps drawn by Democrats in favor of a Senate map the GOP majority unveiled last weekend. A former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor named Kareem Crayton helped draw several of these maps, Democrats said Thursday, under questioning from Republicans who've taken flack over their choice of map-making consultant.
The committee also rejected a map drawn by attorneys for the plaintiffs in the underlying lawsuit. Though the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said it tried only to draw fair maps, Republicans focused largely on the fact that the new lines would have double-bunked a number of GOP senators, forcing them to run against one another in primaries order to keep their seats.
"Perhaps the ridiculous nature of this, of this map, speaks for itself," state Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, who has spearheaded the majority's map-making effort in the Senate, said as he introduced the group's plan to the committee.
"It cannot be imagined to be a coincidence," said state Sen. Dan Bishop, R-Mecklenburg, one of the senators who stood to lose his seat under the plan.
Anita Earls, the coalition's lead attorney on this case, responded with an emailed statement after the meeting.
"It is outrageous that any alternatives to the Republican majority’s maps are met with cynicism and those drawing them are attacked," Earls said. "Our plaintiffs participated in drawing these maps and put forward districts that focused on being fair to all voters. They did not focus on protecting or targeting incumbents."
Fair maps, for Democrats, would address an imbalance in state politics. Statewide races are close affairs, yet Republicans hold a 35-15 advantage in the state Senate and a 74-46 advantage in the House.
Bishop was particularly vocal during debate Thursday, pressing Senate Minority Dan Blue and others on how and why they used racial demographics to draw alternative maps. Democrats argue that you can't fix a racial gerrymander without looking at race, and members point out how similar some of the GOP's newly proposed districts look to those already thrown out by the court.
They also noted the same consultant drew both sets of maps: Tom Hofeller, a map-maker who has drawn districts for Republican majorities around the country.
Republicans hope to short-circuit any attempt to find another racial gerrymander in their new maps.
"There could not be a claim that we somehow over utilized race when we did not use race at all," Hise said.