Friday, July 15, 2011

Is the pen mightier than the sword? It is when NCGOP redraws district map!

Verne Strickland Blogmaster / July 15, 2011
- The Charlotte Observer
Republican mapmakers are already back at the drawing board, reconfiguring congressional districts in response to claims that their current plan dilutes the influence of African-American voters in Eastern North Carolina.

GOP Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, who chairs the Senate Redistricting committee, said lawmakers are responding to concerns by Democratic U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who represents the 1st District.
Any changes would have a ripple effect on other districts.

Butterfield, one of the state's two African-American congressmen, has criticized proposed changes to his district.

The GOP plan would make the 1st District a true majority-minority district by extending it into Raleigh with a net increase of 44,000 voting-age African-Americans. But in doing so, the plan would move 58,000 black voters currently in the 1st District into the 3rd District, represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Walter Jones.

Butterfield and other critics have suggested that would run afoul of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, designed to prevent the dilution of African-American votes.

"We are looking at the 1st District and trying to make adjustments," Rucho said Thursday. "What we're looking at is attempting to get it reasonably designed so we can get pre-clearance."

Under the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Justice Department must approve or pre-clear any election-related changes. Republican lawmakers have said they may also ask a federal court to approve their plans.

Butterfield has said he's particularly concerned about the proposed removal of five eastern counties from his district. In testimony read at last week's public hearing, he said that would dilute the voting power of African-Americans in those counties, each of which is specially protected by the Voting Rights Act.

"The explanation is a political motive," he wrote, "to disenfranchise minority voters and to reduce their influence in adjoining districts."

Anita Earls, executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice and adviser to the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the Republican plan would mean "retrogression" for the affected black voters, a legal term that means reduced opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.

"That's the retrogression question: Does it make protected voters worse off?" she said. "And it does."

Any changes to the 1st District would set off ripples that could reach Wake County and beyond.
Based on North Carolina's population, the ideal population for each of the 13 congressional districts is 733,499. Court rulings call for "zero deviation." That means all 13 districts have to be virtually equal.
Under the Republican plan, seven districts are right at the ideal. Five others have 733,498 people. One has 733,500.

"It has a huge impact on the rest of the map," Rucho said. "You press one side of the balloon and it ripples across. Whatever occurs, it's thanks to Congressman Butterfield."

Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College, said any changes would probably be felt most in the 3rd District and the Wilmington-based 7th District, represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre. But they could affect other districts in Wake County, which is divided among the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 13th districts under the GOP plan.

"It's going to have a ripple impact across the state," Bitzer said, "but it's going to have its biggest impact down east."

In a statement, Butterfield said he would welcome changes. "If the reports are true, I am comforted to know that the General Assembly recognizes that the minority vote is being diluted under the (Republican) plan and changes may be forthcoming," he said.

Rucho said any changes would be made by early next week. The redistricting committees are scheduled to meet Thursday. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the plans the following week.

Tags: politics | North Carolina | redistricting | congressional districts | House | Senate | GOP

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059