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Why Federal Court Struck Down Many NC House, Senate Districts

The NC House districts after the 2011 redistricting plan.
The NC House districts after the 2011 redistricting plan.

North Carolina lawmakers are evaluating their next steps in what's now become a five-year battle over the districts we vote in. Thursday, a federal court struck down the 2011 changes to many state House and Senate districts. WFAE's Michael Tomsic joined Mark Rumsey for analysis of the decision and what comes next.

Michael, this story line is starting to feel familiar.

It is after all the second time federal judges ruled that race was the dominant factor in changing North Carolina districts, and that Republican lawmakers failed to show that approach was necessary. The first instance was in February when a federal three-judge panel ruled on two of the state's congressional districts. Now, a different three-judge panel struck down 28 state House and Senate districts.

How did they determine that race was the dominant factor?

Well, state lawmakers pretty much admitted it. The Republicans in charge of the maps repeatedly said they were increasing the number of districts where at least 50 percent of voters were African-American. They thought the Voting Rights Act required them to do that. They even called the new districts "VRA districts." 

But the three-judge panels ruled in both the congressional and state legislative cases, that's a misinterpretation of the law.

So what does the law say on this?

Frankly, it's a moving target based on the latest case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. The nation's highest court has ruled the Voting Rights Act can require the creation of majority-minority districts.

But in a case out of Alabama last year, the court made clear those districts are not required to have an exact percentage of African-Americans. Rather, it's about whether they can elect a candidate of their choice. Obviously, you can do that by voting in tandem with other races.

How much did the judges in this North Carolina case emphasize that Alabama ruling?

They cited it frequently in explaining how Republicans here "failed to ask the right question." In the districts where minorities were already having success electing candidates, the judges say the question should not have been: how do we raise their numbers above 50 percent, but rather: what is necessary to maintain their current ability to elect candidates?

Did the judges give their own answer to that?

No. They ordered state lawmakers to figure that out when they're back in session next year. They ruled there's not enough time to make changes before the November election, so we'll use the same state House and Senate districts this year. 

The judges were careful to point out a few other things they were not ruling on. What were those?

They said they made no finding that the General Assembly acted in bad faith or with discriminatory intent. One of the judges in this case did reach that conclusion in a different case involving North Carolina lawmakers recently. Judge James Wynn was part of the three-judge panel that ruled lawmakers passed their 2013 voting overhaul with discriminatory intent. 

The judges in the redistricting case also do not say majority-minority districts are no longer needed, or that they can't be properly drawn in some of the same locations. Lawmakers just have to factor in much more than "mechanical racial targets."

These redistricting arguments can get so technical. Let's zoom out and look at the big picture. Why are these fights such a big deal?

One, it's about fair representation for a minority group that states like North Carolina have a history of discriminating against. And two, these lines on a map can sway the balance of power.

African-Americans tend to vote Democratic. So by jacking up their numbers in a few districts, Republicans make the surrounding ones easier to win. That's exactly what happened. They gained control of North Carolina's congressional delegation and cemented control of the state House and Senate right after the new maps kicked in.

And just to be clear, redistricting is a bipartisan sport.

Absolutely. Whichever party is in control after the census every 10 years, its goal is to use redistricting to win more seats. The racial arguments vary and the technology improves. But that fundamental aim is always there, Democratic or Republican.

What happens next in this case?

North Carolina's Republican leaders say they're reviewing their options, but they'll likely appeal. That's what the state did in the congressional case, and the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments as early as October.

As a reminder, North Carolina has already redrawn its congressional map and will use the new districts in November. Judges say there's not enough time to change the state House and Senate districts though. Lawmakers will have to do that next year.

The other next step could be a change to how we do redistricting. Some North Carolina lawmakers have been proponents of setting up a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Calls for that have grown because of the court decisions this year. However, people have also been calling for that unsuccessfully for years.

Copyright 2016 WFAE

Michael Tomsic became a full-time reporter for WFAE in August 2012. Before that, he reported for the station as a freelancer and intern while he finished his senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Heââ
Michael Tomsic
Michael Tomsic covers health care, voting rights, NASCAR, peach-shaped water towers and everything in between. He drivesWFAE'shealth care coverage through a partnership with NPR and Kaiser Health News. He became a full-time reporter forWFAEin August 2012. Before that, he reported for the station as a freelancer and intern while he finished his senior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He interned with Weekends on All Things Considered in Washington, D.C., where he contributed to the show’s cover stories, produced interviews withNasand BranfordMarsalis, and reported a story about a surge of college graduates joining the military. AtUNC, he was the managing editor of the student radio newscast, Carolina Connection. He got his start in public radio as an intern withWHQRin Wilmington, N.C., where he grew up.
Mark Rumsey grew up in Kansas and got his first radio job at age 17 in the town of Abilene, where he announced easy-listening music played from vinyl record albums.
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