RALEIGH — North Carolina Republicans cleared a significant hurdle Tuesday night in their drawing of new districts for the state’s seats in Congress and the Legislature as the U.S. Department of Justice said they wouldn’t oppose the maps approved in July on certain grounds of racial discrimination.
The decision by the lawyers in the department’s Civil Rights Division to “preclear” all three maps — for state House, Senate and the state’s 13 U.S. House seats — came only a few hours after legislative leaders disclosed omissions in the texts of the laws defining the boundaries that was caused by a computer code error.
Republican leaders at the General Assembly said the required fixes were technical in nature and didn’t change the visual maps and other population data upon which legislators voted on the plans in July and were presented to the U.S. attorneys in September. A legislative fix was likely next week.
The lawyers were supposed to review the maps to evaluate whether they complied with portions of the Voting Rights Act designed to prevent maps designed to discriminate against black voters and to allow them to elect candidates of their choice. Federal attorneys had an initial 60-day window that ended Tuesday.
While Democrats and other groups still are expected to sue based on other alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate redistricting committees praised the preclearance decision by the Justice Department in Democratic President Barack Obama’s administration.
It “confirms what we’ve said all along: these are fair and legal maps that give a strong voice to all voters,” Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said in a joint statement. “It also should silence the racially charged rhetoric and put to rest the baseless claim that these maps were somehow discriminatory.”
Opponents of the maps point out the Justice Department doesn’t review for all potential discrimination claims. They argue the boundaries weaken the overall influence of black voters by lumping them into certain districts, and the splitting of voting precincts appear to divide white and black voters only for GOP political gains.
“Make no mistake about it, this Republican redistricting plan will re-segregate North Carolina,” state Democratic Party Chairman David Parker said, adding that “the shapes of the resulting districts make a mockery of the redistricting process and the Republicans should be ashamed of themselves.”
The Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which is considering a lawsuit challenging the maps on behalf of civil rights and election reform groups, is “looking at all the possible avenues of redress that our clients have identified,” Executive Director Anita Earls said.
Earlier Tuesday, officials confirmed that the laws that identify census population units to mark district boundaries for the General Assembly and congressional seats failed to list more than 200 areas across the state.
The mistakes happened when computer-generated maps were translated into census block data that got inserted into the bills that explain in words the maps, according to a memo from legislative staff to redistricting leaders. The problems occurred largely with blocks of 2010 census data that got placed in voting units split between two or more districts, according to a memo from legislative staff to redistricting leaders.
Democrats jumped on the problem as proof GOP legislators in charge of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century can’t be trusted in drawing the maps, which would be used starting in 2012 through the rest of the decade.
“Their plan to split voting precincts proved too complicated even for their outside experts and sophisticated software to handle properly,” said House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, in a statement.
Rucho called a comparable statement from Parker absurd and said if heard the explanations of the error, “he’d say, ‘Wow, some staff person simply screwed up.’”
In a one-page letter to a state attorney handling the preclearance filing, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said the U.S. Attorney General’s Office did not “interpose any objection” to the maps. In a potential reference to the omissions, Perez wrote the “spatial and statistical data” provided Tuesday by the state “reflected the redistricting plans as intended to be adopted by the General Assembly.”
The error, when combined with another redistricting law, affected 52 of the 120 House districts, 22 of the 50 Senate districts and two of the 13 congressional districts, the staff document said. It also created 20 legislative districts in which each district isn’t entirely physically connected, which would run counter to the state constitution’s requirement that they “at all times consist of contiguous territory.”
The new GOP-penned maps would set the stage for the party to preserve or expand recent political gains in the Legislature and for Republicans to win potentially up to 10 of the state’s 13 congressional districts. Democrats currently have a 7-6 edge within the delegation.