A Surry County lawmaker says federal courts need to give some guidance if North Carolina is expected to redraw legislative districts.
On Thursday, a panel of three federal judges ruled North Carolina’s legislative districts were drawn in 2011 in an unconstitutional manner, with race playing a key role in the construction of gerrymandered districts.
“After careful consideration of the evidence presented, we conclude that race was the predominant factor motivating the drawing of all challenged districts,” reads the opinion of the court.
“We therefore must order that new maps be drawn.”
The court even went as far as to call one legislative district, the 48th House District, “bizarre and sprawling,” noting it included portions of Hope, Robeson, Scotland and Richmond counties.
The “base” of the district serves as a “land bridge between African-American populations,” according to the court. It divides four counties and five municipalities.
“The evidence suggests that these divisions occurred largely along racial lines,” notes the court.
Rep. Sarah Stevens, Surry County’s representative in the N.C. House of Representatives, said she had yet to read the opinion of the court on Friday. However, if past precedent proves true, the General Assembly will have to guess at exactly what the court is looking for.
“I’m hoping they have given clear instructions,” said Stevens. “We did draw some districts based on the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.”
The Voting Rights Act requires some districts to be drawn as “majority-minority” districts, districts which have a majority racial minority population.
“In 2011, we looked historically at what had been approved previously under the Voting Rights Act,” remarked Stevens.
She said it is hard to ensure all guidelines are met when redistricting, and rulings which throw out legislative district maps but provide no specific instructions for redrawing legislative districts only make that job harder.
“We try to follow the law,” said Stevens. “We really have tried to draw districts in a fair and legal manner.”
The challenge to the 28 legislative districts — 19 House districts and nine Senate districts — was filed in May of 2015. Thursday’s decision comes on the heels of a similar court decision which threw out the state’s districts for U.S. House of Representatives.
In that case, a special election had to be held in the newly drawn districts. However, that won’t be the case for the state legislative seats.
“Like other courts confronted with similarly difficult circumstances, we will still allow the November 2016 elections to proceed as scheduled under the challenged plans, despite their unconstitutionality,” explains the court, after noting the proximity of the ruling to November’s election.
The court was also harsh in its opinion of how state legislators harmed the state’s voting population when they drew what the court construed to be racially gerrymandered legislative districts.
“Plaintiffs, and thousands of other North Carolina citizens, have suffered severe constitutional harms stemming from Defendants’ creation of 28 districts racially gerrymandered in violation of the Equal Protection Clause.”
North Carolina officials have been ordered to redraw the districts in their next legislative session.
Andy is a staff writer and may be reached at 415-4698.