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Judges Order Sept. 1 Redistricting Deadline, But No Special Election In 2017


The clock is now ticking, the deadline is set. Republican leaders of the General Assembly have one month to redraw 28 state legislative districts ruled to be illegal racial gerrymanders.

If they don’t, a court will.

Morning Edition Host Marshall Terry talks with WFAE's Tom Bullock about the latest ruling by a panel of Federal judges.

Marshall Terry: Tom, we'll get to the specifics in this ruling in a moment, but first, remind us of the background on this case.

Tom Bullock: North Carolina's state legislative districts were redrawn after the 2010 census as required by law. This was just after Republicans took control of the general assembly, thus they were in charge of redrawing the districts.

At the time the maps needed pre-clearance from the US Department of Justice before they could go into effect because of North Carolina's history of Jim Crowe laws. And indeed these maps were given a thumbs up from the Obama Administration. But then, Last August, a panel of three federal judges ruled 19 state house and 9 state senate districts were illegal gerrymanders because they contained too high a percentage of minority voters. Specifically African-Americans. The concentration exceeded 50% of all registered voters in the district. And this is illegal because it dilutes the power of African-American voters in other, surrounding districts, thus diminishing the power of their votes.

The Federal Judges originally ruled this wrong needed to be righted as quickly as possible so they ordered new state legislative maps be redrawn and a special election be held by March of 2017.

MT: The Republican leadership in the General Assembly then appealed that ruling to the US Supreme Court.

TB: Which also found the 28 state legislative districts are illegal racial gerrymanders. The maps must indeed be redrawn. But the high court instructed the lower court to reconsider if a special election was really needed.

So, last Thursday, the original panel of Federal judges heard a new round of arguments. The plaintiffs in the case, which includes the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, called for the district maps to be redrawn in a matter of weeks and special elections to be held before the General Assembly meets for its next regular session in the spring.

The lawyers for the Republican leaders in the General Assembly argued no special election is needed. And they wanted the redistricting process to take a lot longer. Why? Here's what Representative David Lewis told the General Assembly's redistricting committee last Wednesday.

"If the court allows us ample time to do so, we intend to include as much public input as possible and as much input from the committees and ultimately the full General Assembly will deliberate together regarding these new districts."

TB: Lewis said the Republicans in charge of redistricting thought new maps would be done sometime in mid-November.

MT: Which brings us up to last night's ruling by the federal judges. What did they find?

TB: Although this was a unanimous ruling Marshall, it is best described as a split decision.

The judges DENIED the plaintiffs call for a special election – so the next time North Carolinians vote for their state legislators will indeed be the scheduled 2018 election.

The reason for this is, in part to what the panel calls the General Assembly's "commendable goal of obtaining and considering public input and engaging in robust debate and discussion" about redistricting.  

MT: So that's a win for the Republican leaders of the General Assembly.

TB: It is. But only a partial one.

Much of this 11 page ruling chastises the General Assembly for taking so long to correct the racially gerrymandered districts. Here's an example

“The General Assembly does not appreciate the need to move promptly to cure the unconstitutional racial gerrymanders,” The judges said lawmakers provided the court with "No evidence to support their contention that they needed three-and-a-half more months to remedy the constitutional violations identified by this court almost a year ago."

So here, the court ordered the new maps be redrawn and submitted to the court by 5 p.m. on September 1st. Four weeks from now.

MT: So a much quicker timeline than what lawmakers were hoping for.

TB: Absolutely. And the reason here is basically two fold. First the court wants time to be able to go over the maps and make sure they pass constitutional muster. If not the court can redraw the house and senate district maps itself. And second, this provides time for perspective candidates to decide to run, file, raise money and actively campaign in the new districts.

But there is a caveat to this timeline. IF the committee publicly discloses the criteria used to draw the maps, and indeed sticks to that criteria when drawing the new boundaries, then Lawmakers can buy themselves two extra weeks to redistrict.

It sounds easy, but it is a big IF because there are a lot of controversial techniques the party in power can use to manipulate maps to help keep them in power.

Things like Efficiency Gap calculations, a way to figure out how a particular party can gain a majority of seats even if they garner a minority of votes.

These, and other controversial but still legal techniques are employed by national consultants like Tom Hofeller.  He helped draw the districts found to be illegal racial gerrymanders. And Republican leaders have again hired Hofeller to help draw these new districts. So we'll see if those two extra weeks are enough for legislative leaders to make the process more transparent.

MT: Tom, was there anything else of note in this ruling?

TB: There is Marshall. The North Carolina Constitution mandates that a candidate for either the State House or Senate live in that district for at least a year prior to an election. Given the new district maps therefore the unusual nature of the next legislative election the judges have changed this requirement. For the 2018 election a candidate need only live in the district they hope to represent at the end of the filing period. It’s a small thing overall, but somewhat unusual.