This post has been updated to include additional information.
A federal lawsuit filed this afternoon in Raleigh seeks to overturn a controversial law passed by Republicans in the General Assembly
—because it was a local bill, it did not need the signature of Gov. McCrory, who opposed it
and complained about the Legislature interfering in local elections
—that would change the way Wake County voters choose their county commissioners starting next year. Under the current system, all seven commissioners are elected countywide, which supporters of the status quo say makes them responsive to the entire county and helps beat back parochialism. The new system—pushed principally by Sen. Chad Barefoot, R-Wake and Franklin, and Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake—creates seven single-member districts drawn along the lines the Legislature used a couple of years ago to re-carve the Wake County School Board, and two super-districts. Barefoot and Stam argued that the countywide elections are too expensive and at-large districts underserve minorities—both racial and political minorities.
Opponents blasted the bill as an exercise of raw, Machiavellian power, designed only to help Republicans get elected where they otherwise couldn’t
. (“If you can’t beat ’em, cheat ’em,” has been a common refrain.) Just last fall, a few months before Barefoot introduced Senate Bill 181, Democrats rode a wave of voter disenchantment and retook the County Commission. Democratic-aligned activists saw Barefoot’s bill as payback.
“This redistricting is, as Ronald Reagan would say, antidemocratic and anti-American,” says plaintiff and political consultant Perry Woods. “This redistricting is nothing but a partisan power grab.”
And it “fixed” something that wasn’t broken in the first place, the law’s opponents say.
“You’re pretty safe in the assumption that [county commissioners] don’t really like it,” says Wake County Commissioner John D. Burns, who has not yet read the lawsuit. “It’s unnecessary, bad government, and was advanced for partisan reasons. The reasons for the bill had nothing to do with the reasons given on the floor of the House. Anyone who looks at the maps can tell you that.”
In the end, none of that mattered: The bill passed both chambers along party lines and will take effect for the 2016 election. Unless, of course, a court says otherwise.
The complaint—which you can read in its entirety below—argues that the law was passed for “several illegitimate purposes, including in order to create a partisan advantage for Republican voters, and to give unequal greater weight to the votes of suburban and rural Wake County voters compared to that of urban Wake County voters.” Specifically, the complaint argues that the law is unconstitutional in two ways: 1) It violates the one-person, one-vote principle outlined in the Voting Rights Act; and 2) District 4 was unconstitutionally gerrymandered in such a way as to pack black voters into one district—blacks comprise 53.4 percent of District 4 voters under the Republican-drawn districts—thus making it easier for Republicans to get elected in the neighboring districts.
This is unnecessary, adds plaintiff and former Raleigh City Council candidate Brian Fitzsimmons, who is vying to be the next Wake County Democratic Party chair, because the County Commission “currently has two African-Americans, both of whom were elected countywide.”
“To say you need a majority-minority district is an excuse to pack Democrats,” adds Anita Earls, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who brought the lawsuit.
The one-person, one-vote challenge is based not on the fact of there being single-member districts, but the manner in which they were drawn. Specifically, the districts have vastly unequal populations, which effectively means that some residents’ votes will count more than others. One of the two super-districts, District A, has a population 9.8 percent higher than District B, the lawsuit says. And of the single-member districts, 3, 4 and 6 are an average of 7.11 percent higher than 1, 2, 5 and 7. What’s more, the single-member component of the bill splits up 10 precincts into separate districts—all of which happen to be in black neighborhoods—which opponents see as a way to confuse voters.
The problem, Earls says, isn’t with the single-member districts on principle, but rather how they were drawn—to enhance the voting power of suburban and rural areas (read: Republicans) at the expense of the urban core (read: Democrats). “If they had drawn districts that were created of equal size and had not packed black voters, we would not have a lawsuit,” Earls says. “… It is not legitimate for them to privilege one party over another. You don’t change the system to try to skew it in your favor.”
Even so, she admits, her lawsuit is anything but a slam-dunk. “It’s gonna be uphill all the way,” she says.
While the bill was being debated, Republicans rejected a Democratic amendment to change how the districts were drawn, arguing that the courts had upheld the school board districts and to change those might open the state up to litigation. But Earls points out that, while a court did reject a challenge to the school board districts—on technical grounds—the Fourth Circuit has not yet ruled on the appeal. “Republicans keep saying these districts have been approved by the courts,” Earls says. “That’s not true.”
Still, says Fitzsimmons, in a way Democrats brought this on themselves. When they held power, they too threw their weight around and interfered with local governments. “Unfortunately, this is not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing,” he says. “We’re not absolved by this here.” But the turnabout-is-fair-play argument, he adds, is “very sophomoric,” and he points to other examples of recent Republican overreach: in Asheville, where Republicans tried to take over the city’s water system
; and in Charlotte, where they sought to take away that city’s control of its airport
This is all fruit of the same tree, Fitzsimmons says—and whatever party is doing it, he doesn’t like it.
I’ve left a message with Sen. Barefoot’s office and will update if/when he gets back to me. The entire complaint is posted below.
Raleigh Wake Citizens Association et al. v. Chad Barefoot