Raleigh, N.C. — Wake County voters will be going back to the future when they cast their ballots for county commissioner and school board this fall, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge James Dever has been trying to sort out how to hold elections in the wake of a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that struck down districts drawn by state lawmakers for the two local boards.
"This is a victory for basic fairness," said Perry Woods, one of the individual plaintiffs who, along with the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association, brought the case that challenged the legislatively drawn districts. "Changing the rules in the middle of the game when you're losing is not the American way."
In a court hearing last week, lawyers for the lawmakers who crafted the plan said they objected to any move that would return to the 2011 maps.
"While we believe the plans wrongly set aside by the 4th Circuit are fair, legal and constitutional and will continue to appeal to ensure geographic diversity and fair representation for all Wake County voters, we appreciate that the trial court restored the opportunity for voters to cast their ballots in November," Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said a in a statement.
Following the 2010 census, the Wake County Board of Education and Board of Commissioners redrew their districts to ensure even populations, as required by law. Under those plans, Democratic politicians saw successes, including a 2014 sweep of commissioner seats. That prompted the Republican-controlled General Assembly to redraw the school board map in 2013 and the commissioner map in 2015.
The new plans featured seven local districts and two regional districts that resemble a doughnut-shaped district ringing the rural areas of the county and a central blob centered on Raleigh. Many familiar with the maps and Wake County voting patterns said the plan would tilt control of both boards back toward the GOP.
Although Dever originally upheld the maps, the 4th Circuit ruled they violated one-person, one-vote rules as guaranteed by the U.S. and state constitutions. But the appellate court was far from explicit in telling Dever how to remedy the situation.
Under Dever's order, the county will return to the districts drawn in 2011. As well, Dever had to sort out which districts would be up for election this year. That's because lawmakers adjusted Wake County's staggered election schedule – it ensured roughly half of a board's districts were elected in any particular two-year cycle – as part of their mapping plan.
For the school board: All nine school board seats will be on the ballot this fall. Each of those members elected will serve two-year terms and will be elected by plurality – meaning there will be no runoff elections. Given that order, the Wake County Board of Elections will have to hold a new filing period for school board seats this month.
Dever added his order was designed to allow lawmakers to craft a new districting system if they wish when they return to session next year.
For the county commissioner districts: Only those candidates running in districts 4, 5 and 6 will be on the ballot. As in prior elections, all county voters will have a say on those candidates. Those will also be two-year terms, and, as with the school board seats, Dever wrote that lawmakers could craft a new election plan if they want to during the 2017 legislative session.
Dever said that his order "minimizes federal intervention" in state law.