In a surprise move, Governor Roy Cooper, Wednesday, invoked his constitutional authority to call the NC General Assembly into special session to redraw North Carolina’s legislative districts.
That 14 day special session begins today, even though North Carolina lawmakers are already convened in regular session.
In the aftermath of Monday’s unanimous US Supreme Court affirmation of a lower court ruling that Republican lawmakers deliberately created racially gerrymandered 2011 legislative districts to undermine the Black vote, the question now is, after the new maps are drawn, when can a 2017 special election occur if a lower federal court determines that it is needed again?
“Now, demand those who initially challenged the 2011 maps and who still want special 2017 legislative elections, as originally ordered by a three judge panel last August, to happen this year before the regularly scheduled 2018 contests.
“That order represented a tough, well crafted remedy which is now necessary in order to immediately remove the present illegally constituted General Assembly,” said Attorney Irving Joyner, Chair, Legal Redress Committee, NC NAACP.
“We think there is still time to implement special elections in the impacted districts, and we will do everything we can to make sure that happens,” said Anita Earls, Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented plaintiffs who filed suit that Black voters were being illegally “stacked and packed” in majority-minority districts to lessen their overall voting influence.
That judicial panel, last August, determined that 28 legislative districts (five of which are in the Triad) violated Black citizens’ right to equal protection under the law, unconstitutionally minimizing their influence on legislative elections.
“It’s very hard to argue that race did not predominate in setting up our State legislative districts,” Michael Curtis, Professor of Constitutional Law at Wake Forest University School of Law, told The Wilmington Journal.
“The reason for that is that the legislature had two racial quotas – one was whenever possible, create a Black majority [voting] district that was 50 percent plus African-American, and the second was to have majority Black districts in proportion to the Black population of the State.”
But the scheme was to surreptitious attempt to use the 1965 Voting Rights Act as a “gerrymandering device,” Curtis continued, to pack unnecessary numbers of Blacks in majority Black districts.
“The effect of what the legislature did was to waste Black votes,” Professor Curtis concluded, because African-Americans had previously been electing their candidates of choice in racial coalition with Whites, not all Blacks.
Congressman G. K. Butterfield (D-NC-1), who hailed the High Court’s order last month that also struck down North Carolina’s 2011 congressional districts as racially gerrymandered, also wants the legal remedy to come now, not later.
“The General Assembly is required by law to expedite the redrawing of legislative boundaries,” he said in a statement. “The remaining question is whether the new legislative elections will take place this year. The people of North Carolina should not be required to wait until 2018 to live in a constitutionally drawn district and be represented by a legislator who is lawfully elected.”
“The legislative elections should take place in the fall of 2017.”
However, the US Supreme Court vacated the special elections order, sending it back to the three judge panel to reconsider, along with other legal options. If the panel reorders a special election for this year after new maps are drawn and a hearing has been held, Republican leaders would most likely appeal it to the Supreme Court again, effectively killing any prospect of its happening before 2018.
State Republicans reveled in the legal lifeline thrown to them by the court.
“We are encouraged the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the lower court’s politically motivated attempt to force a special legislative election in 2017 and its efforts to ‘suspend provisions of the North Carolina Constitution,’ ignore voters’ constitutional right to elect representatives to two-year terms, and effectively nullify their votes from 2016,” said State Senator Ralph Hise (R-Madison) and Representative David Lewis (R-Harnett) in a statement Monday.
Democrats, who have had to struggle with Republican majorities in both the State House and Senate since 2011, especially want new maps done immediately, hoping that, if they can’t have special elections, they will, at least, be able to cripple the GOP’s veto proof majorities by winning three House seats and six Senate seats in 2018.
Whether the election is November 2018, or earlier, redrawing the districts is good for our democracy by leveling the playing field for free and fair elections,” Governor Cooper, a Democrat, said in a statement.
Local grassroots leadership agrees.
“We must continue to organize and resist in order to have fair voting maps,” The Reverend Alvin Carlisle, President of the Forsyth County NAACP, told The Wilmington Journal . “The one way to see change as it concerns these extremist policies is to change the policymakers. We must register, vote, and fight for fair voting maps.