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Tuesday, July 23, 2024 | Back issues
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Federal judge challenges North Carolina gerrymandering suit

The plaintiffs contesting an October redistricting are pushing to have Senate maps quickly redrawn before the March primaries.

RALEIGH, N.C. (CN) — A North Carolina election map lawsuit saw its first day in court Wednesday morning, in an injunction hearing over Senate election maps enacted in 2023.

The lawsuit, spearheaded by two Black voters, concerns Senate districts in the “Black Belt counties” of northeastern North Carolina that are majority-Black. The plaintiffs argue that their votes are being diluted because their new voting district is majority-white in an area where voting primarily occurs along racial lines.

“Our clients have been put in districts where they cannot elect candidates of their choice,” said Edwin Speas, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs, arguing that the existing maps for Senate District 1 and 2 violate the Voting Rights Act. 

Lawyers for the plaintiffs pushed for a preliminary injunction to delay the use of the 2023 election maps. U.S. District Judge James Dever criticized a remedial map presented by the plaintiff’s lawyers, commenting that they excluded two counties in the Black Belt. 

The counties are too large to form a single Senate district, the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued. Their goal is that the maps be sent to the General Assembly for re-drawing, which would provide a solution for Black voters in seven different districts. 

“We have proposed a district that is majority (Black) with respect to the clustering that the General Assembly likes to do,” Speas said. 

Dever challenged a table in the plaintiff’s expert reports that indicated that the new Senate District 2 would elect a Democrat, something he said “would be a problem” for the plaintiffs’ case.

“The chance of a Black candidate winning in that district is highly, highly unlikely,” said Speas.

“What this shows is that using the results of 30 out of 31 prior elections, the Black preferred candidate would lose under this map,” said Elisabeth Theodore, lawyer for the plaintiffs. 

Phil Strach, lawyer for defendants Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore, also challenged the plaintiffs’ data.

“We think these figures completely undermine this case, that you don’t need a Black majority district to win this case,” he said. Strach also argued that the General Assembly removed racial data from its map drawing process to ensure partiality, which has been challenged by the plaintiffs. 

“I guess the problem was Republicans kept winning the legislature,” Strach said. 

Along with this suit, two other lawsuits over election maps have been filed since redistricting enacted in October 2023. In December, 18 Black and Latino voters sued over new congressional maps, saying that they disregard traditional voting principles to break up minority districts. Voting rights groups followed with the most comprehensive lawsuit to date, claiming the new congressional, state Senate and House maps dilute Black votes. 

The plaintiffs have pushed for the suit over the Senate maps to be expedited, with little success. On Nov. 20, they requested an emergency motion to expedite, requesting a preliminary injunction by Dec. 1 in advance of candidate filing.

Dever denied the motion, saying the “plaintiffs' request completely ignores that their case is not the only case on the court's docket.” Lawyers for the plaintiffs then asked the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to expedite Dever’s decision to file an injunction due to the “time-sensitive nature," which was dismissed. There is still no timeline for the suit to go to trial.

Dever called the injunction request “an extraordinary request” in court Wednesday as the lawyers for the plaintiffs requested a decision before Jan. 17, when the legislature reconvenes. 

In court documents, the State Board of Elections has said that if the court orders a remedial map, candidate filing would need to be concluded by Jan. 10 in order for the two Senate districts to continue as scheduled. If a new map is ordered, the affected elections may be moved to May 14 or later, depending on the timeline of the order, as the Board of Elections requires 50 days to allow candidates to file and ballots to be prepared and distributed. 

Currently, the Democratic and Republican parties have canceled primaries for both Senate districts named in this suit, as candidates ran uncontested. Candidates for Districts 1 and 2 will run in the Nov. 5. general election. 

Follow @SKHaulenbeek
Categories / Courts, Government, Regional

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