State election board tells court it could redraw Wake districts temporarily

Posted July 15

A federal appeals court has ruled two regional voting districts for Wake County school board and commissioners unconstitutional, ruling too many voters were packed into the pink urban district and not enough were included in the green district ringing the county's edges.

— The State Board of Elections has told a federal judge that the five-member board could redraw Wake County's school board and commissioner districts if ordered to do so, but cautioned any such move's effects would be temporary.

State law allows the state board to make temporary rules in emergency situations, such as the timing crunch that has ensued since the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the districts two weeks ago. But the same law "imposes a strict expiration requirement 60 days into the next session of the General Assembly. Indeed, temporary rules established under the statute would be void on March 12, 2017," Elections Director Kim Strach wrote to U.S. District Judge James Dever on Friday.

Her letter emphasizes that the board's temporary rulemaking authority had never been exercised to draw new district maps before, but says the state board could act under the broader authority of a federal court order.

Lawmakers drew districts for Wake County's school board in 2013 and, in 2015, adopted the same plan for the Board of Commissioners. At the time, opponents of the plan said that Republicans in the General Assembly were trying to redraw maps to give the GOP partisan advantages in local races. Republicans insisted they were merely trying to ensure rural areas of the county were better represented.

Opponents challenged those districts, initially losing at the federal district court level. But the 4th Circuit subsequently struck those districts down, sending the case back to Dever to manage.

However, that ruling came mid-summer as state and local boards of elections were preparing for the fall campaign. Officials with the Wake County Board of Elections warned earlier this week that they would typically fix their ballots by Aug. 10 in order to send absentee ballots out by Sept. 9{{/a}}.

Dever has ordered lawmakers, the state board, the Wake County board and other parties to lay out by Monday how they would hold elections this year while still complying with the 4th Circuit's order.

Among the questions Dever asked was what powers the state board has and whether, for example, it could redraw districts without input from lawmakers.

"While temporal limits may discourage our reliance on G.S. ยง 163-22.2 as a redistricting tool, the State Board stands ready to implement special procedures necessary to effectuate any remedy fashioned under the broader jurisdiction of the Court," Strach wrote to Dever.

But, she noted that redrawing districts generally does not fall into the State Board of Elections' purview.

"With respect to technological capabilities, the agency does not presently possess redistricting software or expertise applying traditional redistricting principles, that may be necessary to preserve otherwise legitimate legislative choices referenced in your Order," Strach wrote. "We would, however, make every effort to seek resources as needed to comply with any order of this Court."

The state board is scheduled to meet on Monday afternoon, and Strach is scheduled to report on the Wake County situation then.


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