News: CJ Exclusives

Attorneys in court filing cite report comparing N.C. to Cuba

Lawyers for liberals and civil-rights groups use Reynolds study to ask Chief Justice Roberts not to stop 2017 legislative elections

Former state Sen. Bob Rucho, pictured at a Nov. 30 press conference. He's among 10 nominees to serve on the UNC Board of Governors (CJ photo by Dan Way)
Former state Sen. Bob Rucho, pictured at a Nov. 30 press conference. He's among 10 nominees to serve on the UNC Board of Governors (CJ photo by Dan Way)

Attorneys representing liberal and civil-rights organizations in the Covington Voting Rights Act case cite a controversial study claiming North Carolina is no longer a fully functioning democracy as part of their filing with Chief Justice of the U.S. John Roberts to deny the state’s request to halt a federal court ruling that new elections must be held in 28 state legislative districts this year.

“There is no justification for further perpetuating the extraordinary harm of using race-based districts to elect representatives in a system that has earned the state the reputation of being ‘not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project,’” the attorneys wrote in their pleading, which was filed Monday.

The ranking was pulled from the 2016 Perceptions of Electoral Integrity report compiled by the Electoral Integrity Project, a joint effort by Harvard University and the University of Sydney in Australia to devise a new model for measuring electoral integrity through social science. The study gained widespread attention after one of its designers, professor Andrew Reynolds of UNC-Chapel Hill, touted it in a Dec. 22 op-ed column published by the News & Observer.

Among other claims, the report said North Korea and Cuba ranked higher in electoral integrity than North Carolina, and were only slightly below the U.S.

That study, which ranked 12 other states even lower than North Carolina, “is kind of ridiculous,” said Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University.

“How could they have thought that North Carolina is worse than Cuba?” Gelman asked. “I feel like people just say things, and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not like they really believe it exactly. It’s like someone has a report and they say they found Bigfoot. They don’t really think it’s there.”

The Covington lawsuit was filed in May 2015. Plaintiffs alleged the Republican-controlled General Assembly unconstitutionally drew bizarrely shaped legislative districts based on race to create majority black districts in order to diffuse black voting strength elsewhere.

Although a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did not grant the plaintiffs’ request to redraw the legislative districts for the 2016 election, it said further relief would be granted. In late November the court ruled the state must redraw electoral maps in the contested districts, and hold elections this year.

The state has asked Roberts for a stay of the 4th Circuit ruling to avoid the cost and confusion of holding another legislative election this year after just having one in November 2016. But the plaintiffs’ lawyers oppose that request.

“Granting the stay requested here would establish the perverse rule that voters aggrieved by the unconstitutional use of race in redistricting must file suit more than eighteen months before the next general election to obtain any relief and even then, must endure at least one additional election cycle using unconstitutional districts while the appellate process is under way,” those lawyers wrote in their filing on Monday.

“Given that redistricting plans are only in place for five election cycles, such an outcome would mean that justice delayed is justice denied. The extraordinary relief of a stay pending appeal is not warranted in this case,” they said.

Republicans have denied any racial motivation in drawing the legislative districts, and have alleged political partisanship by the three-judge panel.

That allegation surfaced immediately after the panel’s ruling when state Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, held a joint news conference on Nov. 30 with Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party.

“This will be handled by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Rucho said. “I think we have a rogue court there right now, and it needs to be addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court, and I would suspect that sometime within 2017 we’ll have a decision.”