Wake elections board, lawmakers mulling options in redistricting case

Posted July 11, 2016

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 Wake County Board of Elections is still sifting through how it might handle elections for county commissioner and school board this year as it prepares to reply to a federal court order issued last week.

"Our position all along has been we don't draw maps," said Brian Ratledge, chairman of the Wake County Board of Elections. "We don't have the authority to do that."

His three-member board met for roughly 30 minutes on Monday but did not reach a conclusion on holding an election now that commissioner and school board districts have been declared invalid.

In many ways, the Wake County board is caught betwixt and between different levels of government without the power to decide by itself how the fall elections will be handled. That said, Ratledge said that, when the board meets again on Wednesday afternoon, it would likely make public its preference for how to handle the case.

"There's an approach," he said, when asked if board members were leaning a particular way. "We're not in a place where we can discuss it."

Asked whether the board would ask the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear its case, he said, "stay tuned."

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.

U.S. District Judge James Dever ruled the maps were legal earlier this year. But the 4th Circuit reversed that decision, saying they violated one-person, one-vote rules. The appellate court ordered Dever to reverse himself and put a new election plan in place that doesn't use the illegal maps.

On Friday, Dever ordered Wake County, the State Board of Elections and the legislature to say by July 18 how they would like to handle case. The simplest route might involve reverting to the maps that were in place before the legislature attempted a redraw.

That's what plaintiffs in the case have asked Dever to do.

"Unless and until the North Carolina General Assembly makes any other provision, the authority lies with the State Board of Elections to make reasonable interim rules to return both Boards to the election methods previously in place," Anita Earls, a lawyer for those opposed to the districts, wrote in a filing to the court.

Dever could also try to adjust the maps so they better balanced the populations between districts.

"That's not our call," said Mark Ezzell, a member of the Wake County Board of Elections.

While the board might have a preference as to how to handle the case, Ezzell said, others have the authority to make the decision.

"We're the cooks," he said. "Right now, we don't know what the recipe is."

Lawmakers adjourned their annual session on July 1. While they have already held two special sessions this year, it would be unusual for the entire General Assembly to return in order to handle what is, in essence, a local matter.

"We are continuing to review this matter with our attorneys," said Shelly Carver, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.

The State Board of Elections is already planning to meet next Monday – the same day as Dever's deadline – and could take up the Wake County case then.

"Essentially, the court asked whether we are logistically capable, legally authorized and willing to redistrict if asked to do so. Those questions are distinct, and we’re reviewing them separately," said Josh Lawson, general counsel for the state board.


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