CHARLOTTE – A redistricting panel took public comments at five sites across the state Monday on redrawing congressional districts. The hearings follow a three judge panel’s ruling last week that said the district lines must be redrawn by this Friday, February 19. At issue are the 1st and 12th districts, which the judges decided were unconstitutional, saying that race was the dominant factor in establishing their borders. If they must be redrawn adjoining districts would have to adjusted. Ultimately all 12 congressional districts could be affected, with primary elections one month away and absentee votes having already been cast.
North Carolina lawmakers requested that the U.S. Supreme Court grant a stay on the ruling until an appeal can be heard. The hearings Monday are part of a backup plan in case the stay is not granted. The public had the opportunity to comment in Raleigh, Fayetteville, Wilmington, Asheville, and Charlotte. A site in Greensboro was closed due to inclement weather. Critics of the hearing process said they should have been postponed because weather and short notice led to low turnout.
“Due to the extremely tight deadline imposed on us by the federal trial court, we are being forced to hope for the best but prepare for the worst,” said Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett) and Sen. Bob Rucho (R-Mecklenburg), co-chairs of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting. “Hopefully, this is an unnecessary exercise since the overwhelming majority of times our redistricting plans have been reviewed, they have been validated as fair, legal and constitutional – and we remain confident that the U.S. Supreme Court will issue a stay.”
More than 50 crowded into a classroom at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. Members of the public interested in speaking at the field hearing were asked to sign in on a form that asked their organization and race – the latter a detail that became a point of contention with some, given the focus of the hearing. While lawmakers heard members of the public voice support for the current districting map, many of those commenting in the Queen City made sharp calls for reform of the state’s policy allowing a political party majority to hold sway over district contours.
Commenter Harry Taylor urged lawmakers to seek an independent redistricting system that moved away from gerrymandering. “It’s unethical, it’s immoral, it’s dishonest, and it’s entirely legal,” Taylor said. “What is patriotic about rigging elections so that you can hold power?”
Robin Hayes, former Congressman representing North Carolina and former chairman of the state’s Republican Party, told the Charlotte crowd that current district delineations should remain as they are because they have already been vetted by Federal officials.
“There are very clear rules for drawing districts,” Hayes said. “Everybody who’s involved knows that every 10 years, the majority in the state is responsible for drawing the maps. Consequently, you have 10 years to organize your precincts and your districts and to make sure you elect the person you think is most qualified,” he said. “You’ve got a 10-year window to win the majority and draw those maps.”
Congressional districts are redrawn every 10 years following the U.S. Census. Population growth recorded in the 2000 census led to the addition of a 13th congressional district in North Carolina. The primaries for these district seats is coming up on March 15. The State Board of Elections reports that more than 8,000 ballots have been requested and more than 400 returned.
“If we allow a three-judge panel, at this point, to overturn what the Republicans and the Democrats have put together in the General Assembly, chaos will result,” Hayes said.
Elsewhere in the state, supporters of the current maps included groups of veterans who cited the importance of honoring the maps in the upcoming primary election because of the number of absentee ballots that have already been returned. Not all in attendance, however, saw that as reason enough to not change the system.
“The fact that some absentee ballots have been requested and submitted does not outweigh the damage done” of an election based “on an unconstitutional map,” said Mooresville resident Gene Milsap.
Lawmakers are hoping for a stay on the decision but are moving forward with plans to redraw the maps by Friday, having appointed a committee of 35 lawmakers from both parties led by Rucho and Lewis. The committee will continue accepting public comment through email at the redistricting committee website. Leaders say they will use those comments in determining how to proceed with the re-draw.
Also on Tuesday, challengers to the maps are due to respond to Chief Justice John Roberts by 3 p.m. on the request for a stay. Roberts could share it with the other justices or rule on his own. The odds of getting a stay from the whole bench may be affected by the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia over the weekend. According to legal analysts, with the loss of the conservative justice, cases like this one would more likely end in a 4-4 tie along ideological lines. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised a delay for anyone President Barack Obama nominates, so ties may continue in subsequent decisions until after a new president is elected in November.