Judges have found North Carolina’s legislative districts to be so racially biased that they are forcing the state to redo its elections next year.
This week, a federal court ordered the Tar Heel State to redraw 28 of its legislative districts. The move follows a ruling earlier this summer which found that state Republicans had unconstitutionally relied on race when they drew the current district boundaries in 2011.
The new ruling states that redistricting must be completed by March 15, 2017, with a special election to follow that coming November, rather than in 2018. Legislators elected in 2016 will be forced to run again—in the newly redrawn districts—after serving just a one-year term, and not the usual two. Only legislators in redrawn districts have to run again, but the court’s order is so broad that it could potentially force North Carolina to scrap its entire slate of current districts and have a complete do-over.
“While special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander,” Judges James Wynn, Thomas Schroeder, and Catherine Eagles wrote in their ruling.
The Court recognizes that special elections typically do not have the same level of voter turnout as regularly scheduled elections, the judges noted, adding, “but it appears that a special election here could be held at the same time as many municipal elections, which should increase turnout and reduce costs. A special election in the fall of 2017 is an appropriate remedy.”
As defendant in the case, the state argued unsuccessfully that legislators holding office in the unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts should be allowed to serve out the full, two-year term in office, and barring that, that the redistricting deadline should be pushed to May 1, 2017.
In a joint statement, Republican Representative David Lewis and Senator Bob Rucho blasted the ruling as a “politically-motivated decision, which would effectively undo the will of millions of North Carolinians just days after they cast their ballots.” The pair went on to describe the court order as “a gross overreach that blatantly disregards the constitutional guarantee for voters to duly elect their legislators to biennial terms,” and promised to fight the decision—according to WRAL, an appeal has already been submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.
For Anita Earls, executive director at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, the court’s ruling was a welcome one. Along with the law firms of Poyner Spruill and Tin Fulton, the SCSJ helped represent lead plaintiff Sandra Covington in this case, and in a statement released this week, Earls explained:
North Carolinians deserve fair representation in the state legislature, and that is impossible to achieve with racially gerrymandered districts. A special election in the affected districts in 2017 is the best way to protect the rights of all North Carolinians.
Covington, a retired school teacher, filed the suit after she was “was plucked out of my district and placed into another district simply because of my race.”
According to the court’s ruling, if the state “fails to redistrict” by the March 15 deadline, the suit’s plaintiffs may submit their own redistricting plans within the following two days.