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Democrats, Civil Rights Activists Angry About Redistricting

Senate District 40. Click to view detail.

Every 10 years when the new census is released, states get a chance to redraw the boundaries of their voting districts. The North Carolina legislature is in the thick of that process and is holding another public hearing on it tomorrow. Lawmakers have already released preliminary maps of Congressional districts, and state house and senate districts. The people drawing the lines are Republicans because they control the legislature. And so far, their proposals for the state legislative districts are making Democrats and civil rights activists angry. The big complaint is that Republicans are pulling African Americans from districts that have a mixed population and packing them in their own mostly black districts. "The limited maps presented pack minority voters in districts at percentages higher than is necessary to achieve fair representation," Reverend Kojo Nantambu said at the last public hearing in Charlotte on redistricting. He was one of many unhappy constituents there. "This strategy follows the old 'separate but equal' philosophy used to justify segregation," said Maiysa Mesbah, a student at UNC-Charlote. "Entire neighborhoods are divided," said Dan McCorkle, a Democratic party activist. "Whole communities are disrupted. The districts are plainly gerrymandered. Republicans said they're helping African American voters by giving them more districts they can control. But some African Americans said think about it this way: would you rather be able to consistently elect one candidate in one district or be able to sway the election of three candidates in three districts? They said being isolated limits how much they can impact the legislature. Robin Bradford is with the Mecklenburg County NAACP. "I think it's to set us back 100 years and to make sure that the 2010 election continues to go through for the next 10 years," Bradford said. Mecklenburg County Senator Bob Rucho said, "What we're doing is we're following the law in drawing fair and legal districts." He's a top Republican in charge of drawing the lines. The Voting Rights Act requires legislators to make sure that minority voters are fairly represented in districts. Rucho said the "packing" allegations are baseless and the Republicans are going out of their way to get public comment. In fact, he says some African Americans have told him they're in favor of the plan because it may result in more African Americans in office. "They would rather have an opportunity to sit at the table and be there doing legislation than cheering from the sidelines in an influence district," Rucho said. Demorats are concerned about the plan, too, because African Americans historically vote for them. Isolating African Americans could slice a big number of Democratic voters out of some districts. Democrats say Republicans are relying too much on race to draw the maps. The result is some odd-looking district boundaries. Take Senate district 40. Tom Chumley's home in Huntersville currently fits into it. He's a longtime activist for the Democrats, and Democrat Malcolm Graham represents the district. On a map, it looks like a relatively neat column running along I-77 from uptown Charlotte to the edge of Mecklenburg County. But Chumley shook his head when he looked at the new district boundary. "It's a Rorschach test," Chumley laughed. "I could see the joker from a cartoon and you could see a butterfly or something like that." The Republican proposal for district 40 has jagged tentacles jutting in toward uptown. It would be 53 percent African American, up from 36 percent on the old map. Chumley lives in a part of the district that usually votes Republican, and that would no longer be in district 40. But Catawba College professor Michael Bitzer said that's not surprising. "This is gerrymandering," Bitzer said, "but it's normal." Bitzer said redistricting is a messy political process in most states, but especially in North Carolina. "For folks like me who study this kind of thing, North Carolina is a gold mine," Bitzer said. "Because so many of the key court cases that help to basically decide what gerrymandering is, what redistricting principles are allowed, have come out of North Carolina." In fact, the last three times the state has redrawn its electoral map, legal challenges to new districts have made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Since Supreme Court rulings are often open to interpretation, Bitzer says Democrats and Republicans try to push the boundaries. "When you're deciding basically who's going to control power in a state for the next 10 years, there's a lot riding on it," Bitzer said. Republicans are now holding public hearings on the proposed districts, and hope to have a final map on July 28th. Around that time, Bitzer says the legal challenges will likely begin. View all proposed maps and compare to the old ones. District 40 as it is now. Click maps to view larger detail. Proposed changes to District 40.