NC trial looking at role of race in redistricting

Jun. 04, 2013 @ 02:20 PM

Current and former Democratic state legislators testified Tuesday that Republican legislative leaders lacked justification to draw majority-black districts to protect themselves from federal voting rights challenges during the most recent round of redistricting that favored GOP candidates.

The black lawmakers spoke as witnesses before a panel of three judges presiding over a trial examining two issues stemming from lawsuits filed by Democratic voters and civil rights and election advocacy groups challenging the 2011 congressional and General Assembly districts.

The two-day trial was slated to focus on race-related issues in drawing the districts. One issue is whether drawing majority-black districts in several sections of the state was defensible in some areas. Attorneys for the state and GOP lawmakers said creating districts in which more than 50 percent of the voters are now black is a reasonable remedy to racially polarized voting to avoid certain challenges under the Voting Rights Act.

State Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, former Sen. Eric Mansfield of Fayetteville and current House Minority Leader Larry Hall of Durham all testified that racially polarized voting doesn't exist in their areas anymore, and so majority-black districts aren't needed. They said there's a history of black voters being able to elect their preferred candidates of choice, and white voters helping elect black candidates.

Each of the legislators served in districts with black voting-age populations below 50 percent before 2011. The groups who sued said GOP leaders illegally packed black voters into oddly-shaped districts, split voting precincts and failed to keep whole counties within districts. Blue, a former House speaker and U.S. Senate candidate who first was elected to the legislature in 1980, said his now crab-shaped state Senate district is drawn to pull in black voters from eastern and northern Wake County.

"The basis clearly was to pack all the African-American votes and people in the same district," Blue said in court. "There can be no other reason because since the (previous) district was created ... it had performed as it was designed to perform: that is, it elected minorities."

Mansfield said he lived in a voting precinct where he estimated 80 percent of the residents are white and won election to the Senate in 2010 under the old maps with multiracial support.

"Not a single person ever commented, 'you're a black candidate' ... or 'I'm not going to vote for you because you're black,'" Mansfield said. "Now I did have people say 'I'm not going to vote for you because you're a Democrat,' which is fine."

Special Deputy Attorney General Alec Peters countered that mapmakers had evidence that racially polarized voting still exists, pointing to a study provided to them during the 2011 redistricting process from labor and civil rights organizations.

The groups who sued have the burden "of proving that the legislature did not have a strong basis in the evidence for believing that the challenged districts were necessary when they were drawn," Peters said at the trial's opening. During cross-examination, Peter suggested there were other reasons why black candidates were winning in districts with a minority of black voters, such as advantages with fundraising and incumbency.

Evidence was also expected through Wednesday on whether race was the predominant factor — and an illegal racial gerrymander if true — in forming six districts.

The judges wanted to focus on Senate Districts 31 and 32 in Yadkin and Forsyth counties; House Districts 51 and 54 in Lee and Chatham counties; and the 4th Congressional District in the eastern Piedmont and 12th District stretching from Charlotte to Winston-Salem and Greensboro. Democratic U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, who has represented the 12th District for 20 years, was expected to testify Tuesday afternoon.

The three Superior Court judges already heard two days of arguments in February over motions to dismiss the lawsuits or to declare the maps unconstitutional. But the judges said they wanted to hear more evidence on additional matters before making their ruling, which are sure to be appealed by the losing side.

The 2011 maps helped Republicans pad their majorities in the state House and Senate in the 2012 elections and win nine of North Carolina's 13 U.S. House seats, compared with the six they held previously.