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SCOTUS-Ordered Redistricting Set To Begin

On Wednesday, members of the General Assembly will begin complying with an order issued by the U.S. Supreme Court - fix 28 state legislative districts which the high court found to be illegal racial gerrymanders.

A select group of state senators and representatives will start that process when they meet to discuss redistricting.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling was really just an affirmation. They agreed with a lower federal court that these state legislative districts are illegal racial gerrymanders. But the justices left out a key point for future political map makers to consider. Namely a specific standard.   

"You have to use race but not too much race," is how, now private citizen Bob Rucho sees it. "That really becomes a dilemma. It's almost like being, are you pregnant? One hundred percent pregnant? Twelve percent pregnant? There's no right answer to that."

While serving as a state senator, Rucho helped draw the districts the court struck down. And, yes, he disagrees with the ruling.

But we reached out to Rucho not for his opinion on the ruling, but for his perspective on what the ruling has set in motion. Since he once drew the maps, Rucho can tell us what the process is like. And it's a little loosey-goosey to be frank.

It starts, he says, with the state's political map drawing manual. "You can read that and it pretty much tells you how to begin determining what and how you lump counties together."

Because the North Carolina Constitution states that when drawing state legislative maps, counties should be left whole.

That sounds simple enough. But there's another clause which says each of the 50 state senators should represent roughly the same number of people, give or take 5 percent.

As should each of the 120 state representatives.

But the population isn't so equally distributed so counties can and do get broken up into different districts.

All this data is already loaded into a map making program which can make the process go pretty fast says Rucho. "You just have to sit down and, yes, the computer helps you achieve that goal. So it basically shows you what kind of a map you would have if you were drawing strictly on the basis of numbers."

But politicians rarely, if ever, stop there.

The same program also has a trove of data on voter registration, participation, demographics and more. So the tweaking starts. Largely because gerrymandering for political gain is currently legal.

But let's get back to what is illegal about the current map – the packing of African-American voters into 28 districts thus diluting the power of their votes.

Those districts saw what's known as the B.V.A.P., the Black voting age population surge to just over 50 percent in terms of the overall voters in the district.

With no clear standard from the U.S. Supreme Court on how high a concentration is too high, Rucho says there's plenty of room for consultants to weigh in with a pretty wide range of views. "And you would get one expert that would tell you 50 percent plus one is right. Another expert would say 40 percent is right. Another expert could say 33 is right."

And each of these, Rucho states, could be grounds for a future lawsuit on the new districts. "Unless you totally eliminate the use of race. And in doing so you have a better chance in just following the equal population and the whole county provision."

There's one other factor at play in this story, the lower federal court which originally ruled the districts were racially gerrymandered.

That same panel meets on Thursday to hear arguments on who should redraw the state legislative map and when the next statehouse election should be held.

Copyright 2017 WFAE

Tom Bullock decided to trade the khaki clad masses and traffic of Washington DC for Charlotte in 2014. Before joining WFAE, Tom spent 15 years working for NPR. Over that time he served as everything from an intern to senior producer of NPR’s Election Unit. Tom also spent five years as the senior producer of NPR’s Foreign Desk where he produced and reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon among others. Tom is looking forward to finally convincing his young daughter, Charlotte, that her new hometown was not, in fact, named after her.
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