Wake elections board wants rehearing on commissioner, school board districts

Posted July 13, 2016
Updated July 14, 2016

— The Wake County Board of Elections will ask the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday to reconsider its order that struck down districts drawn for the county's school board and Board of Commissioners.

The decision was taken in closed session Wednesday night and announced by board Chairman Brian Ratledge, who said it reflects the will of "the majority" of the board.

Local boards of elections are three members, two selected from the governor's party and one from the other political party. In this case, Democrat Mark Ezzell said he sided against the decision, saying he thought pursuing an appeal would be fruitless.

"I think that continued litigation is not going to provide any clarity to Wake County voters or any help to Wake County taxpayers," Ezzell said.

Because the county elections board is the only defendant in the case, the county has shelled out almost $138,000 so far in legal fees in the case.

It's unclear what an appeal will mean for this year's November general election. Local boards must be ready to distribute by-mail absentee ballots on Sept. 9, and typically need to lock in who is on the ballot by Aug. 10 – less than a month from now.

"There's a lot of work that goes into that," county elections director Gary Sims said. "You don't just snap your fingers and print ballots for, you know, almost 700,000 voters."

"We're in a jam no matter what we do," Ratledge said.

That would be particularly so if the courts were to settle on a plan for the county commissioners races that requires the county to hold a new primary before setting its general election ballot.

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 are better represented.

While U.S. District Judge James Dever ruled the voting districts were legal, the 4th Circuit reversed him, saying that there was "no reason" to hold elections using districts that were out of balance in terms of population.

While the Wake County Board of Elections will ask the 4th Circuit to vacate the ruling of its three-judge panel and here the case en banc – all 15 judges on the appellate court would hear the case – it must also comply with an order from Dever to provide specific logistical information by Monday regarding holding this year's election. Ratledge said the board has instructed its attorney to make that filing on Monday.

Although he wouldn't say specifically what would be in that ruling, Ratledge did not sound as if the board would recommend any of the various choices between having Dever redraw the maps, reverting to the pre-General Assembly-drawn plans or other options that may be available.

"We don't draw maps, and we don't pick maps. That's outside our purview," Ratledge said.

Further clarity could come Monday when the State Board of Elections meets to decide on what input it will give Dever. Although the state board isn't a party to the case like the county board is, it has overall responsibility for overseeing elections in the state and could recommend a course of action.

Dever said state lawmakers have the first right to redraw the maps, but they must inform him by Monday whether they plan to return for a special session to do so.

Amy Auth, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, said no decision has been made yet. Meanwhile, Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore want to intervene in the case to defend the maps on future appeals.

"As odd as this looks and as messy as this looks, it's not unprecedented, and there is a clear legal process for where we go from here," said Ezzell, the Wake elections board member. "We're just determined to follow it."

"It's not like you have the option of saying, 'This is not going to happen,'" Sims said. "You get direction, be it from the State Board of Elections or a judge or anybody else. Our job is to follow the law and follow any direction we're given."


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