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Gerrymandering accusations fly as Black Political Caucus chair carved out of CMS district

CMS Board member Carol Sawyer (left) drew a political map that removed a possible opponent from her district.
CMS Board member Carol Sawyer (left) drew a political map that removed a possible opponent from her district.

Four years ago, Stephanie Sneed ran against Carol Sawyer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board. She lost.

Two years later, Sneed ran again — this time as a countywide at-large candidate. She missed winning a seat by 195 votes.

Sneed is now the chair of the Black Political Caucus and says she hasn’t decided whether to run for school board next year. But if she does, she can’t challenge Sawyer unless she moves.

Sneed’s home precinct was removed from Sawyer’s district in a map drawn by Sawyer herself.

And Sneed is concerned.

“It’s the community that has reached out to me voicing concerns that this is retaliatory and an abuse of power,” Sneed said.

Sneed said Sawyer’s decision “looks like particular carveout to take out Precinct 2.”

Sawyer said that’s not true.

“That is not the case,” Sawyer said. “I was not aware (that Sneed lived there) when I drew the map. After the fact, I figured it out. But that was not an intent.”

Stephanie Sneed's home precinct was removed from CMS board member Carol Sawyer's district by a map Sawyer created.
Stephanie Sneed
Stephanie Sneed's home precinct was removed from CMS board member Carol Sawyer's district by a map Sawyer created.

Sneed said the map seems like a local version of the hardball politics that play out in state legislatures nationwide.

“You know, across the country, like on the national, state and local levels, we have seen lawmakers and elected officials manipulate electoral boundaries in order to suppress voices and hold on to power,” Sneed said.

Here is the background of the dispute:

Precinct 2 includes the neighborhoods of Cherry and Elizabeth, where Sneed lives. CMS staff recommended that precinct stay in Sawyer’s District 4 in all three of their proposed maps.

Sawyer took one of the those maps — staff map 2 — and made some changes.

In the map she changed, CMS staff had split the town of Matthews into two districts. Sawyer said she wanted to keep the town whole, so she shifted two Matthews precincts from her district into District 5, represented by Margaret Marshall.

“Once you start shifting things, it turns out to be really hard. You can’t just move one precinct,” Sawyer said.

What Sawyer means is that when you take people out of a district, you have to put other people back in. And that often cascades from one district to the next.

Moving the two Matthews precincts meant Sawyer’s district lost 10,700 people.

So she added Precinct 203 in east Charlotte to Sawyer’s District 4. It was close to an even swap. About 11,100 people were put back into her district.

In the process, Sawyer also moved Precinct 2, where Sneed lives. That subtracted another 4,300 people from her district.

Sawyer said she doesn’t know why she also moved Precinct 2 specifically.

“I have no idea,” she said. “I mean I did this in a day, a marathon day, where it took a really long time to make the numbers work.”

Marshall, the District 5 board member, said Sawyer made two attempts at making a new map. Her first effort incorrectly moved a precinct that wasn’t in Matthews and had to be scrapped. Marshall said Sawyer’s first attempt didn’t include moving Precinct 2.

She said she “truly believes” the decision to move Precinct 2 wasn’t because of Sneed.

After Precinct 2 was moved, Sawyer’s district in east Charlotte became the smallest of the six districts based on population, with 183,603 people or 1.24% below the idea size of 185,914.

If it wasn’t moved, then Marshall’s district would have been the smallest. It would have had 183,255 people, or 1.4% below the target population.

Sawyer said her decision was almost random.

“It’s all just a matter of creating numbers,” she said.

When board members discussed the maps in early November, most of the debate was over the fate of District 6, which covers most of south Mecklenburg. It linked the towns of Mint Hill, Matthews and Pineville, and includes affluent south Charlotte neighborhoods.

The board changed that. Mint Hill went to Sawyer’s District 4, and Matthews went to Marshall’s District 5. District 6 moved to the west and added more Democratic voters.

District 6 school board member Sean Strain said he felt the decision to change District 6 was partisan gerrymandering – an attempt to dilute the voting power of Republicans in south Mecklenburg.

In the old District 6, Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in last year’s election by 7.1 percentage points. In the new District 6, Biden won by 21.1 points.

After the vote, Strain said he noticed Precinct 2 had been moved.

“And using all the logical and practical arguments I can find, I can’t find one that justifies moving Precinct (2),” Strain said. “And so it certainly raises a question whether it was politically motivated.”

Next year’s school board election could be intense, with issues like COVID-19 response and Sneed’s primary issue: Closing the racial achievement gap between Black and Hispanic students and white and Asian students.

Sneed said she may not run in the November 2022 election. But she said the map will be used for 10 years.

Sawyer said Sneed met with board chair Elyse Dashew during the map-making process and didn’t complain. Sneed said she was meeting in her role as chair of the Black Political Caucus, not as a possible candidate.

And Sawyer said having her district absorb the conservative town of Mint Hill shows she wasn’t trying to manipulate the map.

“Frankly if I wanted to gerrymander a district so it would be easier for me to win, I would have supported the other map,” Sawyer said.

CMS board races are officially nonpartisan. But even with Sawyer’s District 4 now including Mint Hill, it still overwhelmingly favors a Democrat.

In the 2020 election, Joe Biden won the district by nearly 40 percentage points.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.