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Cooper asks for stay in federal redistricting suit

RALEIGH North Carolina’s attorney general and other lawyers representing the governor and members of the State Board of Elections are trying to slow down or halt a federal lawsuit challenging current congressional and legislative districts as racial gerrymanders.

In October, three North Carolina voters filed a complaint in federal court seeking to invalidate two congressional districts drawn and adopted by the Republican-led General Assembly in 2011.

David Harris, a registered voter in Durham County, filed the federal lawsuit with Christine Bowser and Samuel Love, both registered voters from Mecklenburg County.

They accused the Republican leaders of using racial gerrymandering when drawing and adopting Congressional Districts 1 and 12. The two districts are represented by Democrats – G.K. Butterfield in District 1 and, at the time, Mel Watt in District 12. Watt was sworn in last month as director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

The three voters and other civil rights organizations contend that the 2011 districts, drawn by Republicans who had just gained power in both General Assembly chambers, were designed to weaken the overall influence of black voters.

They contend districts were drawn to concentrate black voters, who typically support Democratic candidates, into districts where their candidates of choice already had a political edge.

The complaint in federal court is similar to a challenge filed in state court not long after the new districts were adopted.

That challenge was heard by the N.C. Supreme Court in January, but no ruling has been issued.

In court documents filed this week by N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper and other lawyers representing the governor and state election board members, they asked a federal judge to halt or delay proceedings in the federal case until the state lawsuit has been fully heard.

In the state-court lawsuit, the plaintiffs challenged 30 districts – nine in the state Senate, 18 in the state House and three congressional districts. They complained that Republicans created many “majority-minority districts” in regions where black voters had elected their favored candidates in coalitions with whites for decades.

The mapmakers said creating black-majority districts in some areas of the state was a lawful way to prevent the state from subjecting itself to legal claims under the federal Voting Rights Act, designed to protect minority voters.

In June, though, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and freed North Carolina and eight other primarily Southern states from having to get preclearance before changing election laws.

Until then, 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties fell under that oversight, and the plaintiffs in the new federal lawsuit argue that lawmakers in the state had used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as “a justification to racially gerrymander congressional districts.”

Attorneys for the Republican-led mapmakers have argued that concern over racial gerrymandering is not what is driving the challenge in state court. They have contended that those challenging the new districts are more interested in having legislative and congressional maps in which black voters could “elect white Democrats.”

Attorneys representing the three voters in federal court have not responded in court documents to the request to halt the legal proceedings in their case until the state case is decided.

It is expected that the N.C. Supreme Court ruling will be appealed by one party or the other.

Blythe: 919-836-4948
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