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Let the litigation begin: A federal lawsuit seeks to block new North Carolina Senate district map

A map of newly redrawn Senate district, with a pop-out box showing District 2 more closely.
N.C. General Assembly
A 2023 state Senate district map depicts District 2, which descends diagonally southeastward from Warren County, then protrudes, like a hitchhiker's thumb, northward encompassing Washington and Chowan counties, then dips back down towards the coast.

Two North Carolina men have sued to block a newly drawn state Senate district map from taking effect, alleging the Republican-crafted plan discriminates against them and their fellow Black voters in the northeastern part of the state where they reside.

The two plaintiffs – Rodney Pierce and Moses Matthews – live in Halifax and Martin counties, respectively. It's part of an area historically known as North Carolina's "Black Belt," with a high concentration of Black residents that, depending on how voting districts are configured, can elect candidates of their choice.

Pierce, a social studies teacher, and Matthews, a retired chemist, allege in their federal lawsuit that a state Senate district map passed by the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly last month dilutes their communities' voting power by breaking up the historically Black area and dispersing residents out over two less compact districts instead of preserving more sensibly shaped majority-minority districts, a redistricting practice known as "cracking." Another method of diluting Black votes is known as "packing," where minority voters are grouped together to form an excessive majority in just one district.

New state Senate map violates the VRA, lawsuit alleges

Rather than keeping their communities intact, the lawsuit alleges, the GOP-backed Senate plan "cracks" Black voting areas and disperses them over a "region across multiple districts, including Senate District 2, which stretches more than 160 miles from the Virginia border to Carteret County on the Atlantic Ocean."

That cracking, the lawsuit claims, violates Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, or VRA, which is meant to protect the voting power of Black communities from discriminatory laws and district plans. In June, a majority opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the authority of Section 2.

Senate District 2, as drawn, descends diagonally southeastward from Warren County, then protrudes, like a hitchhiker's thumb, northward encompassing Washington and Chowan counties, then dips back down towards the coast.

The VRA and supporting court rulings require lawmakers to determine whether certain areas with high concentrations of minority voters have a history of racially polarized voting, where Black voters tend to vote one way as a bloc and white voters choose different candidates. Where such racially polarized voting exists, Section 2 of the VRA requires certain protections for Black voters.

Republican lawmakers ignored warnings, lawsuit claims

According to the lawsuit, as lawmakers began work on new state legislative and Congressional district maps this year, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice alerted them by letter to expert analysis of recent elections and evidence that indicated a VRA examination of racially polarized voting in the Black Belt counties was needed.

Nonetheless, Republicans forged ahead with their plans for new district maps, drawing new legislative and Congressional districts and approving the new boundaries in October along party lines. Under state law the governor, currently Democrat Roy Cooper, has no veto power over redistricting plans.

Just as the GOP-led legislature prepared to take final votes on the maps, voting rights advocates protested the plans and focused, in part, on the alleged VRA violations.

"The two ends of that district have nothing in common," Ann Webb, policy director at Common Cause North Carolina, argued at the time, referring specifically to Senate District 2. "They are far from one another; they have different communities, and they should not be gerrymandered into a district together."

GOP legislator says policies, not gerrymandering, are to blame for Democrats' electoral failures

But top Republican legislators insisted their maps were drawn fairly and defended their decision not to consider racial data or to conduct a racially polarized voting analysis.

"To be clear, the chairs did not believe that the use of racial data would be helpful in reaching any political or other legislative redistricting goal," Senate Redistricting Committee co-Chair Ralph Hise stated in October.

Hise and another redistricting co-chair, fellow Republican Sen. Warren Daniel, told fellow senators they concluded there was no evidence that the maps needed to be altered to protect minority communities' voting power.

"So, here's the truth," Daniel said during floor debate on the new state Senate district map in October, "Democrats in North Carolina have blamed their electoral failures on so-called gerrymandering for over a decade instead of looking in the mirror and understanding that voters have time and time again rejected their out of touch far-left policies."

In 2022, voters across North Carolina cast a total of only about 4.4% more votes for the 14 Republican candidates for the U.S House than they did for their Democratic opponents.

Just last year, a Democratic majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court had ordered new redistricting plans after determining the previous maps, drawn after the 2020 census, were unconstitutionally gerrymandered with excessive partisan bias by the GOP-controlled legislature.

That landmark decision capped a decade of litigation through the 2010s that saw multiple GOP-drawn district plans thrown out by state and federal courts over issues of racial and partisan gerrymandering.

But after Republican justices won a majority on the state Supreme Court in the midterm elections, they granted GOP lawmakers' request to revisit the partisan gerrymandering case and reversed the earlier decision. That led to the replacement maps passed last month.

The lawsuit asks the court to block the use of the current Senate map and to ensure adoption of a plan that includes a "minority opportunity district" in the northeastern part of the state.

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