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Election shows impact of redistricting and why voting-rights groups are suing

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Within hours of the final election results, it became clear: In the 2011 redistricting, the GOP drew themselves a hell of a set of maps.

Even though North Carolinians split their vote almost evenly between the parties, and turnout neared 2008 levels, including participation among African-Americans and young voters, far fewer Democrats were elected than Republicans.

The results show the impact of the GOP's strategy of "packing" Democratic voters, many of them minorities, to create fewer Democratic-leaning districts. Now voting-rights groups are pointing to the results to press their case that the maps should be thrown out.

"They scientifically engineered the lines to produce the skewed results," said Bob Hall, director of Democracy NC, in a recent interview.

It wasn't just a matter of packing Democratic voters into districts, he said, but dividing them along racial lines. More blacks were elected—half of the Democratic caucus in the House is made up of African-Americans—but it came at the expense of longtime coalitions of black and white Democratic voters. "They used a computer to create an apartheid set of districts," Hall said.

Democracy NC, the state NAACP and other voting rights groups have filed suit to force the Legislature to redraw the redistricting plans, which followed a GOP rout in the 2010 legislative elections. The suit has been combined with another filed by more than three dozen legislators and voters. The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case on Feb. 25.

In their filings, the plaintiffs contend the maps are "outrageous," moving more than 2 million voters into split precincts, with black voters far more likely to be in such a precinct than white voters. Furthermore, according to filings, the maps were created in secret by an out-of-state Republican operative who has testified he never attended one of the many public hearings held on redistricting—or even looked at the transcripts of those hearings.

The operative in question, Tom Hofeller, is a former Republican National Committee staffer. He headed the RNC's redistricting shop, and his expertise is detailed in the October issue of The Atlantic in a story aptly titled "The League of Dangerous Mapmakers."

The article emphasizes Hofeller's care in crafting district lines that can clear objections under the Voting Rights Act, yet deliver the desired results.

A key vote on the state Supreme Court is Justice Paul Newby, who won a close election (51 percent to 48 percent) against appellate Judge Sam Ervin IV. The partisanship in this ostensibly nonpartisan contest and the estimated $2.3 million in Super PAC and outside money that contributed to Newby's win should pressure Newby to recuse himself. If he rules on the case, Newby's financial backing in the election, including money from some of the same players that paid for Hofeller's redistricting work, raises questions about the court's impartiality in one of the most sensitive and pivotal political cases in decades.

Also expect to hear more about the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to examine Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires pre-clearance by the Justice Department of major changes in voting procedures.

A weakening of Section 5 by the nation's highest court could affect us in North Carolina if, as expected, the General Assembly takes up Voter ID and other voting rule changes that would trigger a Section 5 review.

Hall said the loss of Section 5 would give the N.C. Legislature, which has a record of using divisive tactics, freer rein to enact changes without seeking pre-clearance. These could include eliminating Sunday early voting and straight-ticket options.

"We should be increasing our ability to work across racial lines and party lines. That's the future of our state and our nation," Hall said. "The maps and the philosophy the Legislature is using is trying to defeat that."

This article appeared in print with the headline "When maps need a makeover."

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