RALEIGH — Lawyers seeking to strike down North Carolina’s legislative and congressional boundaries Monday used multicolored maps and numbers along with arguments for election fairness and simplicity while seeking to convince judges that Republican-drawn maps amounted to racial discrimination.
The attorneys for Democratic voters and civil rights and election advocates who sued over the maps in late 2011 told a three-judge panel that the boundaries approved by GOP lawmakers illegally packed black voters into sprawling districts, split voting precincts and failed to keep whole counties within districts.
While the new maps increased overall black representation in the legislature with the 2012 elections, the boundaries also created more districts in which black residents are a majority of the voting-age population than the previous districts largely penned by Democrats.
Republicans have argued that the federal Voting Rights Act and recent U.S. Supreme Court decision demand them to draw majority-black districts. Lawyers on the other side said the GOP went far beyond what redistricting rules require and illegally made race the predominant factor in drawing districts and in turn diminished the influence of black voters overall.
“The overwhelming and uncontested evidence in this case demonstrates that race did predominate the decision about where to draw the district lines,” said Anita Earls, a Durham attorney representing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups.
Attorneys for GOP legislative leaders and the state want the 2011 lawsuits thrown out will get to make their case before the Superior Court judges Tuesday. The U.S. Department of Justice signed off on the maps based on a portion of the Voting Rights Act, which is designed to protect voters from discrimination.
“The maps that we have enacted were done in accordance with the law and I look forward to putting the full scope of the arguments we’ve made in favor of our plans before the court,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, who shepherded the maps through the House in 2011.
The political stakes on the outcome of the litigation are huge.
The Republican-penned boundaries are supposed to be in place through the 2020 elections, giving the GOP a leg up on keeping hold of the legislature. Republicans were able to draw the maps more to their liking after winning majorities in both chambers after the 2010 elections, the first time they had done so since 1870.
The new maps helped Republicans pick up nine seats in the House and two in the Senate in the November elections. Republicans also now hold nine of North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House districts, compared with six before the new maps took effect. Democrats hope to force the Republicans to redraw districts that may also allow them to roll back GOP gains.
The lawyers for dozens of voters and advocacy groups opposed to the maps spent nearly five hours Monday making their case mostly on computer monitors. There they showed boundaries of many of the 30 state House districts, 16 Senate districts and three U.S. House districts they argue are unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.
They said too often the Republican mapmakers purposefully drew districts in jagged shapes for little else but to pull in black voters so that they would exceed 50 percent, even when black incumbents had been elected earlier in the area when their districts’ black population were much lower.
Allison Riggs, one of Earls’ colleagues, showed the judges a south-central House district where the black voting-age population was increased from 46 percent to 51 percent by carving out land where black voters in Scotland, Richmond and Hoke counties live. Race is the only explanation for the decision, Riggs told the court.
“Your honors, this is what race predominating looks like. Each weird appendage that branches out from this district does so in order to capture pockets of black voters,” she wrote.
To create the majority-black districts, map critics said Monday, Republicans split 563 voting precincts affecting more than 1.9 million voters, or 27 percent of the statewide electorate. Democrats argue the splits caused a large swath of voters who are disproportionately black to get wrong ballots or creating confusion for voters about who represented them.
“You create two classes of citizens in the state,” Earls said.
The same panel of three Superior Court judges decided last year to allow the 2011 maps to be used during the 2012 elections. Rulings by the panel likely will end up at the state Supreme Court, where a majority of justices are Republican by voter registration.