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NAACP and other voting rights groups appeal GOP-drawn districts

RALEIGH The state NAACP, a group of Democratic voters and other voter-rights organizations are taking their fight against the legislative and congressional boundaries drawn by Republicans to the state’s highest court.

“We know, without a doubt, that the battle for voting rights is one that must be won,” the Rev. William Barber II, head of the state NAACP, said on the Wake County courthouse steps on Monday. “We know we’re in a battle for the ballot.”

Their notice of appeal comes two weeks after a panel of three Superior Court judges validated the legislative and congressional districts intended to be used through the 2020 elections. They had 30 days to decide whether to appeal to the N.C. Supreme Court.

The NAACP, Democrats and voter-rights organizations challenging the maps argue that they are racial gerrymanders designed to weaken the influence of black voters.

“They were a cynical use of race,” said Anita Earls, executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice and one of the attorneys representing some of the plaintiffs.

Irv Joyner, a Durham attorney and N.C. Central University law professor also representing the plaintiffs, called the districts “a clear perversion of voting rights.”

Jo Nicholas, president of the N.C. League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan group that challenged the maps, described the districts as “hyper-partisan.”

Republicans, who led the map drawing in 2011, contend they followed the law while creating districts that helped their party expand its majority in the state legislature in the 2012 elections.

In the House, Republicans picked up nine seats and now dominate Democrats 77-43. The Senate added two Republican members, and holds a 33-17 advantage.

The Republicans also succeeded in expanding their majority at the U.S. congressional level, winning nine of 13 U.S. House seats while winning 51 percent of the congressional vote.

Maps produced by a Democratic legislature a decade ago produced a more balanced result, opponents of the new districts argue. Seven Democrats and six Republicans were elected from the state to the U.S. House in the election before redistricting.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who led one of the General Assembly’s 2011 redistricting committees, said at the time of the three-judge panel’s ruling that it validated what GOP leaders have been saying all along.

“Their ruling is like a cookbook for how to redistrict,” Rucho said. “Making the maps is like following a recipe.”

30 districts challenged

Attorneys for the Republicans have argued that the legal challenge is not about racial gerrymandering. They have contended that those challenging the maps are interested in creating legislative and congressional maps in which black voters could “elect white Democrats.”

“It’s a fact that a Republican majority in the General Assembly is not going to support plans that they perceive as favorable to Democratic interests or harmful to Republican interests,” Alec Peters, a special deputy attorney general representing the state, told the Superior Court judges at a hearing in February.

The courts have allowed parties to draw districts for political advantage but prohibit racial gerrymandering.

The plaintiffs challenged 30 districts – nine in the state Senate, 18 in the state House and three U.S. Congressional districts. They complained that Republicans packed black voters into districts where they had already been successful in electing their candidates of choice despite being in the minority.

By creating new districts that had a majority of black voters in those same regions, the challengers’ attorneys argued, the mapmakers drew the lines to reduce the overall political power of black voters.

They likened it to creating housing or school districts that packed black residents or students into certain districts, segregations that violate federal law.

“The same rationale applies in this case,” Joyner, the Durham lawyer, said.

Interpretation differences

The three Superior Court judges who reviewed the legal challenge said in their ruling that “the Enacted Plans do not impair the constitutional rights of the citizens of North Carolina as those rights are defined by law.”

“Political losses and partisan disadvantage are not the proper subject for judicial review, and those whose power or influence is stripped away by shifting political winds cannot seek a remedy from courts of law, but they must find relief from courts of public opinion in future elections,” the judges wrote in their ruling.

Republicans said at the time of the ruling that they hoped the plaintiffs would not further challenge the decision, arguing that such an appeal would be costly to tax payers.

Joyner, the Durham attorney, said he interpreted the law differently than the judges and hopes a higher court will be persuaded by arguments on appeal. Their legal strategies were not included in the notice of appeal.

“This three-judge panel failed to understand and apply the law as it was supposed to be applied,” Joyner said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948
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