Wrangling over Wake school board, commissioner districts continues

Posted August 8, 2016
Updated August 9, 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.

— Wake County elections officials told a federal court Monday night that they could, in theory, deal with any of four options under consideration for school board and commissioner elections, as long as the court didn't require them to hold a new primary.

That filing capped off a sometimes confounding 24 hours in legal and administrative wrangling over how voters will elect county leaders this fall. Along the way, plaintiffs in the long-simmering redistricting case asked a federal appeals court to remove the federal judge supervising the case, and the State Board of Elections held a late Sunday night meeting to appoint a new Wake County Board of Elections member.

As of Monday night, what may be the hottest potato in North Carolina court has landed back in the lap of U.S. District Judge James Dever.

This is a case that defies a short summary, but the rough outline reaches back to 2011, when members of the Wake County school board and county commissioners redrew their districts following the 2010 census. Over the following election cycles, local Democrats saw big gains on those boards. Following those elections, the Republican-controlled General Assembly stepped in and drew new legislative districts that would tend to favor GOP candidates.

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this summer threw out those legislatively drawn districts but was less than clear on how to administer the new election. That task has fallen to Dever, who has been sorting through competing plans both in person and by demanding information from various parties involved in the lawsuit. In his latest request, Dever asked the Wake County board to rank how difficult it would be to implement each of four election plans.

An unexpected meeting

That's where things stood as of Sunday night, when the State Board of Elections gave notice it would hold an emergency meeting at 10 p.m. to fill a vacancy on the three-member Wake County Board of Elections.

The state board has not had time to respond to a records request seeking information relevant to the appointment filed by WRAL News on Monday.

Josh Lawson, the board's general counsel, said he suggested to Whitney that the state board might want to move ahead with the local board appointment to avoid a 1-1 deadlock on the Wake County board between the Republican and Democrat members.

"They wouldn't have been able to comply with the court order if there was division among them," Lawson said Monday.

The state board ended up appointing Eddie Woodhouse to fill the vacant seat.

However, when the Wake County board met on Monday, members did not discuss or vote on their response to Dever in open session. Wake County elections Chairman Ellis Boyle merely warned Woodhouse that a filing was coming.

"If it's not up on the news yet, it probably will be soon," Boyle told Woodhouse.

Asking for direction

In the meantime, the group that filed the suit that overturned the Wake County districts filed another appeal with the 4th Circuit{/a}}.

That's because Dever has signaled he would be open to holding this year's elections under the commissioner and school board districts the 4th Circuit threw out. In fact, in its response Monday, that's the option the Wake County Board of Elections said would be the easiest.

That prompted lawyers for the Raleigh Wake Citizens Association to ask the 4th Circuit to either take Dever off the case or order him to revert to the 2011 districts.

"The Court was clear that it saw no reason why elections in 2016 should proceed under the election systems found to be unconstitutional by this Court," lawyers wrote on behalf of the association. "Despite an in-person status conference and two rounds of briefing by Plaintiffs, the trial court has failed to enjoin the use of the unconstitutional election system for 2016, putting in jeopardy the ability of Plaintiffs to have a remedy that vindicates their rights."

No response was immediately forthcoming from the 4th Circuit.

Sketching out what's easy

Dever had ordered the Wake County board to rank how hard each of four election plans would be to implement.

In its reply, officials with the county board {{a href="document-15913216"}}wrote that the unconstitutional plan would be the easiest because it was already programmed and ready to go.

Second easiest would be reverting to the 2011 election plans for school board and county commissioners, although that would come with its own difficulties. Because all nine school board seats were supposed to be elected this year, for example, the State Board of Elections would have to determine if and how to return to a plan that elected half the school board every two years.

Two other options would follow plans sketched out by Rep. Rosa Gill, D-Wake, or Republican legislative leaders. Those plans would be even more fraught because each would require the political parties to nominate new candidates. However, the Wake County board emphasized "it is not feasible to add a new primary" and still be ready for the general election this fall. General election ballots are due to go out to mail-in absentee voters Sept. 9.

Rulings from Dever, and potentially the 4th Circuit, are expected in the coming days. Wake County election officials say they need to know what to do by Thursday, or they will begin running afoul of deadlines set by existing state laws.

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  • Mary Jones Aug 8, 2016
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    So confused...I thought the current map was ruled a 'no go'. Why is it even an option? It seems clear that the only thing to do is go back to the map that was being used before the intervention of the legislature. Dragging their heels to make it harder and harder to change before the November elections is a transparent ploy. Once again, I guess we will need out of state help.