Voters, candidates, and political partisans exchanged sharply divided views and occasional vitriol Monday in a marathon public hearing about North Carolina congressional redistricting in the wake of a federal court decision placing the scheduled March 15 primary in jeopardy.
Members of the General Assembly’s Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting did not offer comments. They will review statements and materials submitted by more than 60 speakers during the hearing, which lasted 5 ½ hours, then reconvene Tuesday at 10 a.m.
Republican leaders have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to stay a lower court ruling, allowing the primary move forward as scheduled. They could decide as early as Tuesday to call a special session to reconfigure the political maps if the federal justices rule that the congressional primary must be held separately later.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina ruled Feb. 5 that North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts represented by Democrats were redrawn unconstitutionally because racial considerations were the principal factor. It ordered the state, without providing guidance, to resolve the situation by Feb. 19.
Monday’s public hearings were held at the General Assembly’s legislative building, and at five satellite locations across the state. Online comments were accepted until 8 p.m.
Democrats and a few unaffiliated voters attacked the General Assembly’s Republican leadership as racists, accused them of dragging the state back to an era of segregated Jim Crow laws, and demanded they yield to the lower court’s decision even before the U.S. Supreme Court decides.
While some deplored what they viewed as the Republicans disenfranchising black voters, they said throwing out the ballots already cast by military and absentee voters and starting the election over was a small price to pay for the greater goal of preserving electoral sanctity.
Republican defenders decried the decision as last-minute judicial activism with what they consider an impossibly short timeline to resolve the crisis by the March 15 primary.
They warned that chaos spawned by the decision will cost taxpayers up to $10 million to hold a separate congressional primary, will depress voter turnout, and possibly derail candidates whose districts might shift beneath their feet.
They belittled Democrats as being hypocritical for practicing gerrymandering for more than 100 years and then vilifying the process after Republicans rose to power and drew district boundaries favoring the GOP.
And most Republicans opposed their adversaries’ call to create an independent, nonpartisan redistricting commission to take the mapmaking out of politicians’ hands.
Some critics of the Republican redistricting called the public hearing a sham. They said it was put together too quickly without sufficient notice, and was held despite inclement weather that might have depressed turnout.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the House-designated committee co-chairman, noted that in 2002, when courts ordered the Democratic-led General Assembly to redraw electoral maps, the party held no public hearings. When the courts tossed the electoral map in 2003, Democrats held one public hearing.
In a post-hearing interview with Carolina Journal, Andy Taylor, an N.C. State political science professor, said critics’ calls for an independent redistricting commission is “a possible long-term solution,” and legislative members might want to “start throwing that idea into the legislative grist mill” when they return to session April 25.
“But I don’t think that’s a solution to this current issue,” he said.
While some of those providing testimony slammed Republicans’ passage of voter ID requirements because of the possibility some voters might be disenfranchised, Taylor said that “seems an inconsistent argument” when they’re simultaneously arguing to throw out hundreds of absentee and military ballots and start the primary over.
Taylor says he does not think Republicans drew congressional lines with racial motivation, but rather for purely partisan gain, which the courts have ruled is legally permissible.
“Distinguishing between partisanship and race in this case is very, very difficult, because they’re highly correlated with one another,” Taylor said. African-Americans vote nearly uniformly as Democrats.
Opponents are accusing Republicans of racism or racial intent because that is “a more fruitful avenue of argument than partisanship,” Taylor said. It is interesting that blacks are arguing against using race to draw district boundaries now, he said, because they championed the concept when trying to create majority-minority districts in compliance with the Voting Rights Act extension of 1982.
“We continue to believe these districts were drawn fair and legal in accordance with both existing state and federal statutes, as well as both the state and federal constitutions,” said Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party. He was among several speakers who blamed the courts for changing the rules so close to the primary date.
He said if redrawn, the lines should focus on the legally permissible partisan advantage. He also called for eliminating race altogether as a consideration in drawing electoral boundaries to make the maps truly color blind.
Former Republican U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord said he was affected by redistricting on two occasions and predicted “chaos will result” if the lower court ruling stands. In split primaries in 1998, he said, 799,000 voters cast ballots in May, but only 166,000 voted in the September congressional primary.
“You’re going to disenfranchise voters and completely skew the process” by allowing the three-judge panel’s ruling to substitute for legislative redistricting control, he said.
John Harry of Hoke County said the three-judge panel wants to thwart the will of North Carolina voters, who have supported Republican policies by voting GOP majorities in the General Assembly and Congress twice since 2012. The rising belief on the left that federal courts should decide state issues “is counter to the philosophy of the U.S. Constitution,” he said.
Helen Pannullo, chairwoman of the 7th Congressional District Republican Party, said the court ruling “could have a ripple effect throughout the state” because voters would have to be shifted among districts to comply. “One has to wonder if the case is really about drawing all 13 districts.”
Bob Penland of Candler said Article 1, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution “gives the right to the legislators to draw the lines” of congressional boundaries. As a military veteran, he said, he is troubled that their votes could end up being meaningless, “and they are the ones protecting the rights of the people sitting in this room.”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who represents the 1st District, forwarded a statement to Sen. Floyd McKissick, D-Durham, to read into the record. He said Republicans “were fully aware that you were incorrectly applying the law … for your own partisan political advantage,” that they must comply with the court order because the Supreme Court will rule against them, and to move the congressional primary to May 24.
Butterfield said “a fair plan should result in Democrats having the ability to elect at least five or six” congressional candidates.
Gary Grant of Tillery accused Republicans of endangering lives by not canceling the hearings in foul weather, and said they “crammed black people” into the 1st District to dilute their voting strength in other districts. The district “looks like clown shoes,” he said.
“And stop blaming our Justice Department for accepting something they probably didn’t really look at,” he said in response to several comments that five prior court rulings and the U.S. Department of Justice under former Attorney General Eric Holder gave preclearance to the redrawn maps. “It’s a mess. You made it. Clean it up.”
Brian Fitzsimmons, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party, agreed, saying if there is any chaos and confusion now, “the responsibility for that falls directly on this body. … You tried to fix a problem that did not exist.”
“I never would have thought in the 21st century we would be facing some 20th century issues,” said the Rev. C.E. McCollum, president of the Roanoke Valley Christian Leadership Conference. “I would have thought we could get beyond racism.”