State lawmakers voted largely along party lines today to make changes to the laws underlying new GOP-penned House, Senate, US House, and two local redistricting maps.
Legislators approved the laws this summer, and the maps won federal pre-approval from the Department of Justice last Tuesday – the same day mapmakers announced that “a software glitch” in the program used to translate the maps into law accidentally left out about half a million voters.
According to legislative staff, all the census blocks that were left out by the glitch were in precincts that were split under the new maps, a practice that Democrats have denounced.
Republicans stressed that the changes were strictly “curative” – a legal term for action that “corrects an error in a statute’s original enactment, usually an error that interferes with interpreting or applying the statute.”
“What this law is, is to correct a computer error that failed to record the desires of the redistricting team and the redistricting committee,” Lewis explained on the House floor. “We can cure this bill.”
Lewis said the problem was discovered about two weeks ago when errors were found in the Wake County Superior Court district map. Legislative staff suspected the errors might have affected the other new voting maps, too.
“Our staff immediately went to work to one, identify what text might have been left out of the bill, and two, to develop a curative solution to make sure that when you take the text of this bill, and use the text of the bill to draw the picture, that the two pictures match," Lewis said.
But Democrats said the changes to the legislative maps violate the state constitution.
Legislative staff and lawmakers were in agreement that the mistakes in the current bill make it unconstitutional. Some districts aren’t contiguous, while others have too many or too few voters.
According to the NC constitution, once redistricting maps for the state House and Senate are “established,” lawmakers can’t change them until the next census in ten years, unless a judge rules them unconstitutional.
Under state law, any census block that isn’t assigned to a district by lawmakers is automatically assigned to whatever adjoining district has the fewest voters, so no voters are left unassigned. And federal officials have already signed off on the maps.
Democrats say that since all voters are assigned and the maps have been approved, that means the maps are “established.” So even though the maps as defined by the glitchy bill are unconstitutional now, it would also be unconstitutional to change them without a judge’s permission.
In committee and on the floor, Democrats argued that the software problem was caused by the division of precincts.
Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, argued that other states using the same software, called Maptitude, have not had similar problems. But none divided up the number of precincts that North Carolina's new House map does - 395 precincts or VTDs are split into different House districts.
“We here in North Carolina decided to throw it a curve ball and ask it to do something that it wasn’t designed to do,” Martin said. “We pushed the boundaries so much in North Carolina that we broke the program, and as a result, attempted to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.”
“You can call that a glitch,” he said. “I call it a travesty.”
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, said the fix would have to happen in court.
“You have to seek and declare your first bill unconstitutional,” he said. Otherwise, the bill “will be doubly unconstitutional.”
“It is the language of the bill, not the best intentions of lawmakers, that governs,” Glazier added.
Republicans disagreed, saying the law is not yet established, since it's currently being litigated and hasn't yet taken effect.
“All that has occurred here is a coding problem in a program developed by the ISD department of the GA staff,” said Redistricting co-chairman Nelson Dollar, R-Wake,. “The code that we wrote internally had a mistake in it.”
According to Dollar, the Democrats’ proposed maps had missing census blocks, too, when they were run through the same program. “So let’s deal with the real issue. It was a technical problem, and it’s being corrected with a technical bill.”