A showdown over North Carolina’s disputed congressional district lines draws closer on Tuesday, a day after hundreds of state residents shared their opinions on a political dispute that has burned for decades.
On Friday, Republican leaders of the state legislature must submit a new election map after a three-judge federal panel ruled that two congressional districts, including one that covers parts of Charlotte, were gerrymandered using race.
Gov. Pat McCrory and other state leaders have asked Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to set the lower court’s ruling aside and allow the existing map to be used in the March 15 primary through the general election in November. The uncertainty surrounding the high court’s involvement has deepened since the weekend death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
For Monday, at least, the voters took over. Hundreds ignored inclement weather to attend redistricting public hearings in six sites around the state. According to legislative leaders, almost 80 people spoke.
After hours of comments, Republican legislators were left with conflicting instructions.
Defend your map. Fix your mess.
Through early afternoon, a majority of the speakers had urged Republicans to follow the judges’ orders and fix the maps.
“This is not democracy in action, this is democracy being stolen,” said Brian Kasher of Charlotte, an environmental scientist who held both parties accountable for the state’s history of gerrymandering and election legal fights. “You got caught holding the hot potato. You may not have started it. But you’re holding it now. Stop making excuses.”
A joint legislative redistricting committee expects to begin redrawing the 12th and 1st district boundaries Tuesday and Wednesday, and then hold a two-day special session for the General Assembly to vote before it can be resubmitted to the court.
Lawmakers hope the new map is a standby and that Roberts and/or his colleagues will intercede.
But Kareem Crayton, an election law specialist at the Vanderbilt University Law School, says he doesn’t expect the Supreme Court to set the earlier order aside. The prospect of a 4-4 philosophical deadlock is a major reason why, he said.
“Bottom line: It appears the proverbial bill for this prolonged and delayed legal fight has now come due for the General Assembly,” said Crayton, a former UNC law school faculty member. “The short timeline makes it now pretty certain that they will have to draw a map that helps set things right.”
Rich Hasen, an election law specialist at the University of California-Irvine, says the high court normally avoids rulings that affect elections shortly before balloting. Hasen said he does not expect the justices to hold a hearing on North Carolina’s emergency motion or even release a specific vote with a decision.
If the vote is 4-4, the court would deny the state’s request. Whether the court will rule before Friday’s deadline for the new map is anybody’s guess.
The Monday public hearings were held in Raleigh and on college campuses in Charlotte, Fayetteville, Asheville, Halifax and Wilmington. The session in Guilford County was canceled because of the weather. Cameras and a large video screen made it possible to watch and hear what speakers were saying at every site.
State Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, one of the General Assembly’s redistricting chairmen, said the legislature’s goal was to hear from voters before making any district changes.
Despite relatively little notice – the hearings were announced at 5 p.m. Friday – and icy conditions in some parts of the state, the hearings drew overflow crowds in Charlotte and at least one other site.
About 50 voters filled a training room at Central Piedmont Community College before the 10 a.m. start. Those without seats milled around the hallway or stood at the door to try to follow along. Eventually, organizers opened up another room to handle late arrivals.
If we overturn what Republicans and Democrats have put in place, chaos will result. Leave the maps as they are now.
Former GOP U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord
Under the format, speakers had to register, and then each of the five sites took turns choosing a name off the list and giving them five minutes for their remarks.
That made for a deliberate pace. By 1 p.m., only six of the registered 30 speakers at CPCC had spoken. Statewide, voters who criticized the district maps were outnumbering supporters by at least 2-to-1. Most agreed with the three-judge federal panel, which ruled that mapmakers had over-relied on race to pack more African-Americans in the disputed districts.
“It appears that the legislature has divided our state to pick the voters, instead of the other way around,” said Clarence Leverette, chairman of the African-American Caucus of Iredell County. “This plan segregates African-Americans rather than building them into the fabric of this country.”
Former U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes of Concord, who opened the Charlotte hearing by referring to himself as a “recovering congressman,” said Republican legislators had followed the same process used by Democrats in the state for more than a century. As with several speakers who followed, he described the voting lines as fair and legal. To change them now, after absentee ballots already have begun being returned, would cause election chaos and unnecessary expense.
“Leave the maps as they are,” he said.
Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, said in Raleigh that Republicans had produced a “colorblind” map that met constitutional requirements. He accused the courts of “changing the rules not during the game, but after it.”
What’s patriotic about rigging elections?
Political activist Harry Taylor of Charlotte
While criticism of the judges was common, more voters reminded legislators that they can’t ignore the courts. Speakers criticized the Republicans for wasting a week since receiving the original order for a new map. They were also chided for scheduling the hearings with little notice, holding the hearings despite dangerous weather, then using a format that made voters wait hours for their chance to speak.
“The courts have found that these districts are unconstitutional. You must fix them. No delays,” said Charlotte small-businessman Scott Huffman, a Navy veteran.
Democratic activist Harry Taylor singled out more than a half-dozen legislators on hand at CPCC – many wearing American or North Carolina flags on their lapels.
“What’s patriotic about rigging elections?” said Taylor, one of many who called for an independent, nonpartisan commission to draw the maps. “What does it say about you that the only way you can run the state is to cheat people out of their votes? You want to be called honorable. ... Give everybody the opportunity to participate in our country.”
N.C. Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, serving as monitor, kept the Charlotte hearing on track, albeit slowly. He warned the room from the start not to clap or jeer. Early on, he angrily gaveled a short burst of applause to a close.
“This is not a sporting event,” he said.
Later, as a technical glitch cut off sound between Charlotte and Raleigh, Brawley picked up his cellphone. The Charlotte attendees watched on the big screen as Rucho answered the call in Raleigh.
“We can’t hear you anymore ... and we have 24 left to speak,” Brawley said.
On the screen, Rucho appeared to recoil in surprise, a response that drew the loudest bipartisan laughter of the day.
Just before 1 p.m., UNC Charlotte sophomore Bryan McCollom of Matthews had his turn on camera. The weather had canceled his classes, and the resident of the disputed 12th District said he decided to drive uptown for the hearing.
He posed a question: If North Carolina is almost equally divided about Republicans and Democrats – voting for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential races and Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 – why do Republicans hold 10 out of the 13 congressional seats? Why can’t the lines be drawn more competitively so young people like himself might become more involved?
State Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Cornelius, listened from the back of the room. He said his party had largely followed the redistricting blueprint that Democrats had used for years. Something has to change to curb the cynicism and distrust the process had spawned, he said.
“It’s a mess, and it needs to be fixed,” Tarte said.