RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - State Republicans quickly positioned themselves Monday to approve new General Assembly districts before a court-ordered deadline later this week, even as Democrats argued the new maps display the same unlawful racial bias that judges found in the earlier ones.
The full House voted 65-47 for district lines that appear to help the GOP retain its strong majority in the chamber. The Senate followed late Monday with a 31-15 vote giving final approval to its remap, which also should help keep Republicans firmly in charge there, too. The Senate already had debated extensively on its plan before giving initial approval last Friday. The votes were largely along party lines favoring Republicans.
The House still must consider the Senate map this week and the Senate must vote for the House districts, but these actions are likely perfunctory. Redistricting plans aren’t subject to the veto stamp of Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat.
But these maps will be scrutinized by a three-judge panel that set a Friday deadline for legislators to approve new lines that remedy the “constitutional deficiencies” with 28 House and Senate districts initially drawn in 2011. The 2011 maps helped Republicans expand their majorities, enabling them to pass legislation aligned with their right-leaning views on taxes, education and social issues.
The judges ruled in August 2016 that those districts were illegal racial gerrymanders. Nearly all of the challenged districts had majority black voting-age populations.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June upheld the lower court ruling, triggering the current remapping for the 2018 elections.
Republicans decided the remapping rules would prevent the mapmaker — primarily a Republican consultant who drew the 2011 maps — from looking at the racial composition of the electorate.
The judges wrote “that we had not established enough in the record to trigger the use of race in drawing districts,” House redistricting committee senior chairman Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County said during floor debate. “No additional information has been presented to me or to the redistricting committee to refute the court. Therefore we did not use race in drawing this map.”
However, Democrats said that reflects a misreading of the judges’ ruling. They cited parts of the 2016 ruling that said legislatures still must analyze districts to identify and fix potential federal Voting Rights Act violations.
“You refuse to do so. You’re pretending that the Voting Rights Act no longer exists,” said House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, a Wake County Democrat, told Republicans.
Preliminary data provided by Democrats show the number of majority-black House and Senate districts would decline significantly in the proposed maps. But Democrats argue minority percentages remain needlessly high in some districts, depriving the adjoining districts of voters who could help Democrats win there. Jackson said one can tell some racial gerrymanders still exist just by comparing the proposed map with the 2011 boundaries: “I’d ask that you not cry foul if and when the court calls you to task for it. Everyone has warned you.”
If the judges agree with the Democrats, they could order an outside expert to redraw the maps. The judges could also redraw the maps themselves.
Mapping criteria approved by legislative committees did allow Republicans to consider past election results to determine the partisan sway of each district. Republicans currently hold 74 of the 120 House seats and 35 of the 50 Senate seats — both veto-proof majorities. Results from recent statewide elections show Republicans have the advantage in enough districts to potentially retain them.
The proposed plans put three pairs of current House members and four pairs of senators in the same districts, meaning one in each pairing won’t return in 2019. Rep. Larry Pittman, a Cabarrus County Republican, was drawn into the same district as GOP Rep. Carl Ford of Rowan County. The House on Monday overwhelmingly defeated Pittman’s amendment that would have given him his own district.
Pittman and Rep. Michael Speciale of Craven County, a close conservative ally, were the only two Republicans who voted against the statewide House map. Only one Democrat, Rep. Bill Brisson of Bladen County, voted for it.
Three senators who voted against the map Monday were Republicans — Sens. Deanna Ballard of Watauga County and Bill Cook of Beaufort County, who have been paired up with differing incumbents, and Sen. Rick Horner of Wilson County, whose proposed district is strongly Democratic.
Federal judges want North Carolina redistricting completed by later this week, so the General Assembly is back to work voting on legislative boundaries.
The state House and Senate scheduled Monday floor sessions to debate and vote on their respective district maps. The Senate already gave tentative approval to its plan late last week on a largely party-line vote. Each chamber also will have to vote on the other chamber's plans before the two maps are approved.
A three-judge panel ordered last month that the final boundaries be sent to them by Friday for review. The judges previously threw out nearly 30 districts from the 2011 maps for relying too heavily on race.
The Republican-controlled House on Monday also could hold override votes on three of Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes.