The General Assembly on Friday approved a broad array of electoral changes including a separate June 7 congressional primary and new congressional district boundaries before adjourning the two-day special session Gov. Pat McCrory had called.
Prickly divisions arose again between majority Republicans, who ushered in the changes to comply with a federal court order by today’s deadline, and Democrats, who vigorously opposed them from start to finish.
Democrats complained that they did not have input into the drawing of the new congressional map, but downplayed Republicans’ counterargument that Democrats never offered an alternative to consider even though they were authorized to use legislative and outside staff, computers, software, and up to $25,000 for expenses.
Earlier this month a three-judge panel of the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina struck down North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts, ruling they were drawn unconstitutionally because race was a predominant factor in the decision making.
Republicans deny that, and are awaiting word on an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the lower court’s ruling. A stay would allow the election to go forward as originally planned with all races on the ballot, while litigating appeals in the case at a later date.
The GOP chose not to use race as a factor in realigning the congressional maps, which created consternation and disbelief among Democrats and members of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Given the uncertainty of the Supreme Court reprieve, and the congressional primary being pushed back to June 7, Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, emphasized that it is critical for voters to cast ballots in congressional races during early voting, through the 23,000 absentee, military, and overseas ballots that already have been issued, and on the March 15 election date.
“If there is a stay even two weeks from now it suddenly will count,” and the June 7 congressional primary, as well as other parts of the two bills passed on Friday, will become null and void, Hise said.
Kim Strach, State Board of Elections executive director, said if no stay is issued and a standalone congressional primary is pushed back to June 7, the voting machines still would be set to tabulate the congressional votes on March 15. But the machine would hide the results from view, and they would be sealed.
It would cost between $9.5 million and $10 million to hold a second primary, Strach said, but all counties should have budgeted for a runoff primary. Since this legislation disallows any runoff primary, money already budgeted should cover a standalone congressional primary.
Under normal circumstances, candidates must get at least 40 percent of the primary vote to avoid a runoff, Because there will be no primary runoff, the candidate the most votes would win, even if that plurality is less than 40 percent. The legislation enacted Friday sets a new filing period for March 16-25 for congressional candidates.
But costs to candidates who already have been running campaigns, and now might be in another district, or face more opposition with a new filing period set for March 16-25 “will be lost forever, plus all the time and energy,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg.
“The voters have been disenfranchised because of this action” by the federal court, said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, who served as the Senate co-chairman on the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting that drafted the rules, criteria, and procedures for drawing the new congressional maps.
Throughout the proceedings of the past four days Democrats continually grilled Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, House chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting, whether race in any form was part of the mapmaking process.
Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, followed suit during debate on the House floor Friday. And he pressed Lewis, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to answer whether Lewis believed the changes were constitutional at the state and federal levels.
“Race was not considered in the drawing of these maps. I do not know what the racial composition of the voters that reside in these districts is,” Lewis responded, while answering the constitutional question by saying the plan addresses the federal court’s concerns.
Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, invoked the name of “my friend Martin Luther King” during floor debate, saying the civil rights leader told him when an opponent hits one cheek to offer him the other.
“I’ve been hit on both cheeks by you all, and I’m not going to let you hit me anymore,” Michaux said, accusing Republicans of drawing the maps even before committee meetings began to do that work.
In a House Redistricting Committee meeting earlier in the day, Michaux refused to answer when asked if he or other Democrats had worked on any alternatives.
“Anything we have to say we will say it to the courts because you will not respect anything we have to say,” Michaux said.
Are lawmakers “required to protect minority communities from racially polarized voting patterns? Yes, they are. Voter discrimination matters,” Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, said while questioning the timing of when the maps were generated.
Rep. Ed Hanes, D-Forsyth, said it was essential to discuss race in context of the congressional maps. He noted that of 1.9 million Republicans in the state, 95 percent are white, and 41 percent of the 2.6 million Democrats are black.
Hanes decried drawing U.S. Rep. Alma Adams out of the 12th District, saying the voices of two of the state’s largest minority populations in Forsyth and Guilford counties “have been silenced with regard to congressional politics.” Blacks paid for the right to representation “by whip, through blood, by protest, and through eventual freedom.”
Lewis said using simple party registration to draw districts isn’t as effective as using past election results, which show true voting patterns of a population. Election results also take into account patterns of unaffiliated voters that could swing an election.
The federal court cited no evidence of racially polarized voting in North Carolina, and no Democrat submitted evidence during hearings to support their contention that dynamic made it necessary to inject race into the maps’ composition, Lewis said.
The new maps “in no way guarantee the election of Republicans,” he said, while conceding GOP candidates would have an edge.
“People aren’t dumb. They’re going to vote where their philosophy is, they’re going to vote where their values are,” said House Majority Leader Mike Hager, R-Rutherford. He said he won his district by 32 percent even though Democrats outnumbered Republicans 22,000 to 12,000 in a gerrymandered district drawn by the Democrats.
“The voters know what’s going on,” Hager said. “The voters of the Democrats did not leave the party, the party left them.”
Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, vice chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting, said over the past 40 years North Carolinians have voted for the Republican candidate in eight of the last nine presidential elections (89 percent), and for the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in 13 of the past 16 elections (81 percent).
The 10-3 Republican-to-Democrat congressional split under the new maps is 77 percent, and “you might could make the argument that Republicans are underrepresented” given state voters’ preference in national elections.
He also scoffed at what he termed Democrats’ hypocrisy for raising gerrymandering concerns only after Republicans won legislative majorities in 2010 and with it, the authority to draw the electoral maps. He said the GOP made those gains in districts gerrymandered by Democrats.
“I would just remind the listeners, and the voters, and the students of North Carolina to study your history, and to understand that when you hear all these comments, and all these complaints about gerrymandering, well, we sat at the masters’ feet for decades,” Jones said.