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New round of redistricting in North Carolina gets underway

A joint committee on redistricting holds a public comment session on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh.
Rusty Jacobs
/
WUNC
A joint committee on redistricting holds a public comment session on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh.

The Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly is once again drawing state legislative and Congressional district maps. This round of redistricting follows a whiplash-inducing turn of events over the past two years over partisanship in drawing political boundaries.

Just last year, court-appointed special masters redrew maps for North Carolina's state legislative and Congressional districts. Those maps replaced GOP-drawn plans the Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court found to be gerrymandered with unconstitutionally excessive partisanship.

The replacement maps yielded a 7-7 split in the state's Congressional delegation, an even split that many speakers at three public redistricting hearings this week said reflects the partisan balance of North Carolina's electorate.

"Did we not do this last year?" Robert Rodriguez asked, addressing lawmakers at Wednesday's public comment session in Raleigh.

Following what turned out be a short-lived landmark ruling by the state Supreme Court's Democratic majority, Republicans won a majority on the state's high court last year. The new majority promptly granted GOP lawmakers' request to rehear the redistricting case and then reversed the previous ruling on partisan gerrymandering.

"And the only reason that we're here is because of the shift in the Supreme Court from last year," Rodriguez said during the two minutes allotted to each speaker.

Critics see the redistricting process as rushed, secretive

Lawmakers are free to start working on proposed maps, according to Senate Redistricting Committee co-Chair Ralph Hise, a Republican representing a district in the northwestern corner of the state.

Hise told WUNC that lawmakers could be ready to vote on a new Congressional map by mid-October, followed by state legislative maps by the end of the month.

"We need to have these maps done by December for filing," Hise said, noting the urgency to get new maps in place for the 2024 election cycle.

Many of the people who spoke at three public comment sessions this week in Elizabeth City, Hickory and Raleigh criticized what they saw as a rushed process designed to shut them out, especially since this week's hearings started at 4 p.m., when many people are at work.

People gathered at the Legislative Office Building, in Raleigh, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, for a public comment session on redistricting. The Republican-controlled legislature will draw new Congressional and state legislative district maps.
Rusty Jacobs
/
WUNC
People gathered at the Legislative Office Building, in Raleigh, on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2023, for a public comment session on redistricting. The Republican-controlled legislature will draw new Congressional and state legislative district maps.

But Hise said GOP lawmakers are just picking up where they left off in 2021 before their maps were thrown out, a process that included 13 public comment sessions over 10 days.

"All three of these public comment [sessions] are in addition to the body of work that we've done for years now," Hise said.

Voting rights advocates want racial data used to draw maps

In 2021, the GOP-majority legislature notified the public about the criteria they adopted for drawing their maps, some required by constitution others established by court cases.

Such criteria include maintaining equal population across districts, avoiding the splitting of precincts, and keeping communities of interest intact—and, according to Hise, not using racial data.

"I think very much that you can comply with the Voting Rights Act without using racial data in the drawing of the maps," Hise asserted, adding that racial data might get used later to whether a completed map complies with the federal Voting Rights Act.

Voting rights advocates have argued that racial data must be considered to hold up Voting Rights Act protections for the electoral power of high concentrations of minority voters, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Milligan decision.

The court found that Republican lawmakers in Alabama skirted VRA protections by drawing a map that created just one Black-majority voting district where more were possible.

GOP maps likely to stand, 'given the political realities'

Sonya Bennetone-Patrick, 60, made the drive from Wilmington to Raleigh on Wednesday. As a Black woman, Bennetone-Patrick said she feels it is imperative to speak out for transparency and fairness in redistricting.

"We don't take that for granted—voting is a constitutional right not a privilege and we take it very seriously," Bennetone-Patrick said.

"Given the legal and political realities of 2023, these maps will more likely survive" — David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College

Like many other speakers, Rebecca Zerkin of Orange County said she felt it was all but guaranteed Republicans would draw maps to preserve their legislative super-majority, one GOP lawmakers used this year to pass greater abortion restrictions, eliminate the need for a concealed-carry permit, and to pass a budget with a policy provision making it easier for legislators to shield certain records from public scrutiny.

"Moms don't want that, we have to vote them out," Zerkin said.

But with the change in the makeup of the state Supreme Court there's little to get in Republicans' way, said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College.

"Given the legal and political realities of 2023, these maps will more likely survive," McLennan said.

Maps that haven't been drawn, or seen, yet but could add to the Republican super-majority in the state legislature and deliver the GOP as many as 10 out of the state's 14 Congressional seats.

Rusty Jacobs is WUNC's Voting and Election Integrity Reporter.