N.C redistricting maps face federal scrutiny

The contentious battle surrounding N.C.’s new congressional and state legislative districts could be months from a conclusion as the debate shifts to Washington, D.C.

Legislators are expected to submit their redistricting plans to both the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. District Court in D.C. for federal approval in the next two weeks. The Justice Department will have 60 days to rule on the district maps while the court case could extend beyond the ruling.

New districts for N.C. senators and representatives — as well as the state’s 13 U.S. House of Representatives seats — were enacted at the end of July during a special redistricting session. The N.C. General Assembly must redraw voting districts each decade after federal census results are released to maintain proportional districts based on population growth.

Several Democratic lawmakers were “double-bunked” in the new districts, meaning they included the residences of more than one legislator.

Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, D-Orange, would face a primary battle with Sen. Bob Atwater, D-Chatham, if the new 23rd district encompassing both counties stands.

Kinnaird said she will wait for the court rulings before deciding whether to run for re-election.

“The Democrats 10 years ago drew terrible maps — they looked like squash bugs and snakes and everything else as far as the districts are concerned,” she said. “And the Republicans took the Democrats to court and rightfully so. Now the Republicans have drawn maps just as egregious … and so we’re heading toward the same place.”

U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., could also face a primary challenge from U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., in the state’s fourth congressional district.

Price said in a message to supporters that he will not be deterred from representing a district that divides Orange County in half and stretches from Burlington to Fayetteville.

“Whatever shape the fourth district may take, I will stand for re-election,” he said.

Federal approval or “preclearance” of the new district maps is mandated in the federal Voting Rights Act. Forty counties across the state are subject to Section 5 of the act, which requires lawmakers to avoid discrimination when forming districts including those counties.

The state’s NAACP chapter has already vowed to file a lawsuit against the district maps — the first crafted by a Republican majority in more than 100 years. Leaders say the maps pack minorities into fewer districts, diluting their voting strength.

But state Republican leaders say it’s important for minorities to elect their preferred candidates in districts where they constitute a majority of the voting population.

Damon Circosta, executive director of the N.C. Center for Voter Education, said legislators have a difficult balance to achieve when they attempt to comply with federal voting laws.

“That’s the difficult thing that the new General Assembly leadership had to contend with — they wanted to make sure that their maps would pass muster in federal courts,” Circosta said. “But at the same time you can argue that if you’re too racially conscious you defeat the underlying spirit of the Voting Rights Act.”

At least 25 cases have been brought against state electoral maps in the last two decades. During that span, the Democrats typically manipulated districts to gain a partisan advantage.

Now the Republicans have the opportunity to do the same.

Though many of the districts in the new maps have more registered Democrats than Republicans, 78 of the state House districts and 33 of the state Senate districts would have been won by Republican presidential candidate John McCain in 2008 — both of which would give Republicans veto-proof majorities in Raleigh.

Ten of the state’s 13 new congressional districts would have been won by McCain in 2008.

Circosta said his organization will continue to lobby for legislation that would make the redistricting process nonpartisan.

One such bill passed the N.C. House but was tucked away in a Senate committee last session.

Contact the State & National Editor at state@dailytarheel.com.

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