Members of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting sparred for 4 ½ hours Tuesday in a meeting featuring mostly party-line votes and intense reactions from stunned Democrats after Republican leaders declared they would omit any and all racial considerations when redrawing congressional districts.
Passions rose when Republicans said their main focus in adjusting congressional district boundaries to comply with the Feb. 5 ruling by a three-judge federal panel would be preserving a 10-3 GOP congressional delegation advantage, and protecting incumbents.
A newly configured congressional district map could be unveiled today, and the General Assembly could be called into a special session before the end of the week to vote on the new electoral lines if the Supreme Court doesn’t halt a lower court order declaring two of North Carolina’s districts unconstitutional.
“We still believe that the maps that are presently enacted are fair, legal, and constitutional as has been validated by five different bodies, including the Justice Department,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, Senate co-chairman of the select committee.
“We anticipate some action from the Supreme Court on the motion for a stay” of the lower court ruling, which would allow the election to go forward, Rucho said.
The three-judge panel ordered the state to alter its drawing of the 1st and 12th congressional districts, and halt the March 15 congressional primary until the court approves a new plan. They ruled those districts were unconstitutionally aligned with a predominant motivating factor of race.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, House co-chairman of the select committee, said the plaintiffs submitted their response to the state’s appeal to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts minutes before Tuesday’s meeting ended.
He said the court decision “interrupts an election already in progress,” with 16,000 requests submitted for voting by mail. And he maintained throughout the meeting that Republican leadership did not use racial considerations to draw the maps, went to great efforts to demonstrate that at trial, but was unable to convince the three-judge panel.
Lewis led the Republicans’ successful efforts Tuesday to approve the criteria for he new congressional maps.
“The only [political] data other than population data to be used” in redrawing the congressional boundaries “shall be election results in statewide contests since 2008,” excluding presidential elections, Lewis said.
“That way the federal court would be clear that in the construction of the federal districts we did not use race,” since that was the barrier to the court’s acceptance of the state plan, he said. It also addresses the court’s criticism that using the 2008 Obama-McCain presidential election results “was really code for black versus white.”
In proclaiming the GOP intends to draw boundaries to maintain the 10-3 Republican margin in the U.S. House, “I acknowledge freely that this would be a political gerrymander, which is not against the law,” Lewis said.
“Can you restrict the use of race in drawing the two districts in question, and be in conformity with the Voting Rights Act as the court enunciated in its decision several weeks ago?” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, asked in astonishment.
Lewis reiterated race was being eliminated to satisfy the court’s concerns.
“I don’t think it’s wise to spit in the eyes of three federal judges who are going to control the fate of where we are going to go with redistricting,” Blue said.
“I think it’s an insult to their intelligence to take this approach, and I think that they will show you the ultimate power of the federal judiciary that’s existed since 1802 in Marbury v. Madison,” a case that undergirds the concept of judicial review of legislative acts, Blue said.
“I assure those three gentleman are going to redraw those districts for you,” Blue said. “It is transparent the game that you are trying to play.”
Sen. Floyd McKissick and Rep. Mickey Michaux, both Durham Democrats, joined Blue in expressing incredulity.
“Simply being aware of race poses no constitutional violation,” Michaux said.
House Speaker Pro Tem Paul “Skip” Stam, R-Wake, praised Lewis’s approach.
“It’s very principled,” he said. “Let’s not consider race any more. We’re past that.”
McKissick also bristled over the criteria that the 10-3 Republican advantage would be maintained “when not very long ago before 2010 we had seven Democrats and five Republicans. I’m trying to understand why you feel this would be fair, reasonable, and balanced.”
The goal is 10-3 because he doesn’t believe it is possible to draw districts with an 11-2 advantage, Lewis said. It amazes him, he said, when one side’s electoral maps are declared crass gerrymandering, but the other party’s politically driven maps are described as “a work of art and good government.”
McKissick asked Lewis if he was aware Democrats received a higher number of congressional votes, “but ended up with fewer seats.”
“We do not elect at-large,” Lewis responded. Prior to Republicans gaining control of the General Assembly in 2010 a majority of seats went to the party that had fewer votes, he added.
“It’s highly inappropriate. It’s unfair,” McKissick said. “It’s really a matter of political gerrymandering in the worst sense. It could be five Democratic seats,” which would give voters what they want, more competitive districts.
“Would there not be partisan advantage with 8-5?” asked Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton. “We are drawing these lines so that we get to pick our voters as opposed to them choosing us. It is not fair, it should not be perpetuated.”
“Indeed, you would use partisan numbers” to come up with an 8-5 split, which also would be a form of gerrymandering a predetermined outcome, Lewis said.
“I really take offense” when hearing accusations that gerrymandering is worse today than ever, said select committee Vice Chairman Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham.
“Anybody who goes back and studies history knows that simply is not the case,” he said, recalling split districts that had three and four representatives when Democrats were in control.
Republicans hold no voter registration majority in any congressional districts, and Attorney General Roy Cooper won every congressional district in his statewide re-election, Lewis said. It is the responsibility of the parties “to nominate quality candidates who can appeal to the entire political spectrum.”
Another criteria passed Tuesday is reshaping the 12th District in a fashion “the judges will not consider serpentine,” Lewis said. Blue agreed that it should be more contiguous and compact.
McKissick said while the district is odd shaped, it has received previous Supreme Court approval and should be retained. He said the configuration “links together significant cores” of the state along the Interstate 85 urban corridor of Charlotte, Greensboro, and the Piedmont, which have “similar interests and concerns” that include major banking centers.
Lewis said the new plan would attempt to keep counties whole, but political subdivisions would not receive the same high priority, to which McKissick objected in offering a defense that communities of interest would be divided.
“Your city, Durham, has annexed into Wake County,” Lewis said. “Is the City of Durham a more important community of interest than Wake County?”
Similarly, Stam said, Cary (primarily in Wake County) has annexed property within Chatham County, so mapmakers would have to determine which community carries the most voter interest.
Legislative staff said North Carolina has not adopted a definition for communities of interest, so there is no guidance on applying it to voting maps.
Republicans are drafting their maps while Democrats construct a competing version. Software, computers, and staff resources will be available for both caucuses to draft their versions, and money will be earmarked for consultants.