Voters' race ignored in drawing new congressional maps

Posted February 16, 2016 11:03 a.m. EST
Updated February 16, 2016 6:27 p.m. EST

— After federal judges ruled that two of North Carolina's congressional districts were unconstitutional because the race of voters was the primary factor used to create them, lawmakers decided Tuesday not to consider race at all when drawing new maps.

The new maps also will be drawn to maintain the Republican Party's 10-3 advantage in the U.S. House, the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting decided.

The General Assembly is under a Friday deadline to reconfigure the maps after a three-judge panel on Feb. 5 invalidated the 1st Congressional District and the 12th Congressional District. Republican lawmakers continue to argue that the maps they drew in 2011 are fair and are hoping the U.S. Supreme Court stays the ruling so as not to interfere with the March 15 primary, but they are laying plans to draw up contingency maps.

The committee of House and Senate members approved criteria for drawing the maps, including that districts have roughly equal population, split as few counties and precincts as possible, represent contiguous areas and not pit incumbent members of Congress against one another.

The notion that the race of voters not be considered drew sharp rebukes from black lawmakers, who said the GOP effort would "spit in the eyes" of the federal judges and would violating the federal Voting Rights Act.

"There are places in this state where the Voting Rights Act requires that race be considered to some degree," said Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake. "It’s transparent, the game you’re trying to play. It’s showing disrespect."

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the co-chairman of the committee, denied any disrespect in excluding race. The judges criticized lawmakers' use of race in the 2011 maps and gave no guidance as to how it could be used properly, so it's best not to use it at all.

"You can use race, but it can't be the predominant factor," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham.

"Can use does not mean must use," Lewis replied.

The no-race criterion passed 23-11 along party lines.

Maintaining a 10-3 Republican majority in North Carolina's U.S. House delegation also was split down party lines.

"Why bake in the partisan advantage achieved through the use of unconstitutional maps?" asked Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke.

Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, noted that Democrats and Republicans have been fairly even in representing the state in Congress in recent years. Democrats have no problem giving the GOP a majority, he said, but such an imbalance is "highly improper."

Some GOP lawmakers scoffed at the Democratic protests, saying they were hypocritical after decades of gerrymandering to benefit Democratic candidates.

Lewis noted that Republican voters aren't a majority in any of the 10 districts the GOP now represents. The party has simply been able to attract solid candidates who appeal to the growing number of unaffiliated voters statewide, he said.

The committee also voted to dramatically change the shape of the 12th District, which snakes up Interstate 85 from Charlotte to Greensboro. The district has been the subject of court battles since it was first drawn in the 1990s.

The new maps won't be available for public review until Wednesday, at the earliest. Gov. Pat McCrory still hasn't called a special session of the General Assembly that would be required to approve them.