The Republican leadership’s proposals to redraw voting districts for state House, Senate and congressional districts all advanced today, each clearing the chamber where it started.
This was not exactly a surprise. Unlike constitutional amendments or veto overrides, redistricting maps require only a majority vote for passage, and Republicans hold a solid majority in each chamber.
That didn’t stop Democrats from trying, though. Dems in each chamber unveiled competing proposals today they argued were fairer and more legal than the GOP’s plans. Republicans didn’t agree: all Democratic proposals, large or small, were shot down, mostly along party lines.
At issue is the creation of “VRA districts” – voting districts designed to meet the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.
According to Republicans, the VRA and resulting case law require lawmakers to create districts with majority populations of minority voters that can elect the candidate of their choice. They argue the creation of such districts will protect the state from potentially costly civil-rights lawsuits.
But Democrats disagree. They say the VRA does not require lawmakers to create such districts, except in truly exceptional cases. They’re accusing the GOP of using the VRA to justify “packing” minority voters into a handful of districts to reduce their influence elsewhere.
In the Senate, where the Senate and congressional map votes were strictly partisan, Democrats accused Republican mapmakers of drilling down to precinct-level caucus data to separate black voters from white ones.
Senator Josh Stein, D-Wake, asked why the GOP Senate map splits 40 voting precincts in Wake County alone. “The only possible explanation is that you want to reach out and grab every black person you can find and put them in Dan Blue’s district. And for what purpose?”
Senate Redistricting Chair Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, responded that voters were grouped into districts according to how they voted in the 2008 presidential election. “All we used as a standard was the election of President Obama’s numbers,” Rucho said. “We didn’t consider race.”
Partisan gerrymandering has been found legal by the Supreme Court, while race-based gerrymandering has not, except as used to create Voting Rights Act districts.
Senator Eric Mansfield, D-Cumberland, made the same point about the congressional map for one precinct in his district – Cross Creek 1, a Democratic stronghold he says he knows well.
“I’m just going off the facts. And the facts say that in Cross Creek 1, you have 100% of white persons going to the 2nd District,” Mansfield said. “You’re saying not a single white person voted for the president? That kind of goes against the premise.”
Again, Rucho insisted the lines were drawn according to voting history in 2008. “It’s not an issue of race. I’ve told you that time and time again. I can’t make that answer clearer to you. Apparently you don’t like it. Sorry.”
“You’re right, Senator Rucho, I don’t like it,” said Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake. “I don’t like because I think it borders on conduct that I think most of us would condemn and most of us have moved away from.”
“You can’t tell how the vote in one precinct breaks out on race unless somebody tells you.” Blue went on. “All of the black people in a Voting Tabulation District, or a significant number, are put in the 4th district, and all the white people are put into the 2nd. You can’t do that by looking at how they voted in the presidential election.”
“The [congressional] Rucho-Lewis Map 2A was drawn with complete regard to federal and state law. It meets all the requirements for pre-clearance,” Rucho responded.
The Senate passed its congressional map and its Senate map this afternoon along strict party lines.
The House debate took a similar tone on both sides of the aisle.
“While we have not been ignorant of the partisan impact of the districts we have created, we have focused on making sure the districts we create are more competitive than those created by the previous legislature,” said House Redistricting chairman David Lewis, R-Harnett. “We feel that we’ve produced maps that are legal, competitive, and offer all citizens the chance to elect the candidate of their choice.”
Democrats blasted Republicans for "packing" African-American voters into districts to engineer maps they say are overtly partisan.
“Instead of trying to amass a district or districts that are going to put you into power for the next decade,” said Rep. Mickey Michaux,D-Durham, “we ought to try to be more fair and more competitive.” He called the GOP House map “unfair, unjust, and unconstitutional.”
House Majority Leader Paul Stam, R-Wake, disagreed. “Our current plan, adopted in 2003, resulted in 2004 in a [House] majority to the Democrats of 63 to 57, although the voters gave an 8-point margin to the Republicans," Stam told Michaux, who played a key role in crafting that plan. "Did you consider that fair, when you get lots more votes in what ought to be a landslide, but you lose?”
Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, targeted to lose her seat under the GOP plan, said she doesn’t believe it’ll be approved by federal judges. “I think that the judges will see these maps for what they are. And what they are overall is an attempt to disenfranchise black voters by resegregating them.”
House Minority Leader Joe Hackney agreed. “This bill moves us backward in social progress, in racial progress, in North Carolina, and I think you’re doing that for partisan political purposes. And I think you know exactly what you’re doing, and I think you know exactly why you’re doing it, and I think it’s reprehensible.”
Democrats countered the GOP maps with their own caucus proposal. That map wasn’t released until this morning. Lewis said it was too little, too late, following the tradition of Democrats' opaque redistricting processes in the past.
“This plan is nothing more than a strategy to once again sandbag the people of NC by letting something arrive to our desks hot off the presses. This amendment has not been vetted,” Lewis said. “I do not believe this body should treat this amendment with any more respect than it has frankly treated the people of NC by magically appearing on our desks after debate had already begun.”
House Republicans voted down the Democratic map, as well as another alternative proposed by the Legislative Black Caucus. The final vote on the House plan was 68-50, with two Democrats voting with the Republicans, and one Republican crossing the aisle as well.
The House bill now moves into the Senate for approval, and the Senate and congressional plans are headed into the House. If they gain majority approval in both chambers, they become law without the governor’s input – but, because 40 of NC’s counties are covered by the Voting Rights Act, any election laws must be approved by either the US Dept of Justice or the DC Circuit Court before they can be implemented in an election. Republicans say they’re planning to pursue approval in both venues.
The maps could also be stalled by lawsuits here in North Carolina. At least one organization – the NAACP – has already said it expects to take the proposals to court.