News

State Board of Elections, Ethics encourages early voting in Charlotte, Cleveland ahead of Irma

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Charlotte and Cleveland County residents are encouraged to take advantage of early voting opportunities ahead of Hurricane Irma and Tuesday’s primary election.

There is still a good bit of uncertainty about how much North Carolina will feel the impacts of the Category 5 hurricane, but Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency in North Carolina on Thursday to prepare.

The State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement sent out a media release late Thursday afternoon encouraging early voting, which in Charlotte and Cleveland goes on until 1 p.m. Saturday.

“We are closely monitoring weather predictions,” said Kim Westbrook Strach, executive director of the Board. “Early voting ensures your ballot is cast before Irma reaches the Carolinas.”

State law gives Strach emergency authority to alter election schedules in the face of extremely inclement weather, according to the release. The State Board Office on Thursday afternoon encouraged local elections administrators to prepare for emergency conditions and identified a number of factors Strach will consider as Hurricane Irma approaches the state.

The Board has been in contact with meteorologists and emergency officials and is expected to make a final determination about whether to postpone Tuesday’s elections by the end of the weekend.

There is also an election scheduled Tuesday in the town of Murphy in Cherokee County, but there is no early voting there, according to the release.

Elections are scheduled Tuesday in Charlotte, Cleveland County and the town of Murphy in Cherokee County. (Murphy does not have early voting.)

“The safety of voters and election workers is our top priority,” Strach said.

News

House votes almost along party lines to advance proposed legislative map to Senate

The House voted 65-47 Monday to pass a proposed legislative map that GOP members drew to correct unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

Democrats have been arguing against the map since it was introduced a little over a week ago. Rep. William Brisson (D-Bladen, Johnston, Sampson) was the only Democrat who voted for the map during Monday’s session.

Democrats have said that the map is a gross partisan gerrymander to bolster Republican representation in the legislature and that it remains racially gerrymandered.

To correct the problem of overusing racial data in the 2011 mapmaking process, Republicans voted this process to leave race out altogether — something Democrats, the public and voting rights advocates argue does not solve the issue and violates the Voting Rights Act.

Rep. David Lewis (R-Harnett), chair of the House Redistricting Committee, said during Monday’s session that he was very proud of the map they produced. He said that other maps he reviewed failed to live up to their map.

While he wished there was more time for public comment, he said, the map presented to the House for a vote reflected “thoughtful consideration and public input.”

Democratic House Leader Rep. Darren Jackson spoke against the map for a number of reasons. He said he doesn’t think the map is a racial gerrymander because his colleagues are racist; he thinks it’s a racial gerrymander so Republican lawmakers can lessen the opportunities of African American voters.

“The plan that we’re passing today is every bit as unconstitutional as the plan in 2011,” he said.

The Senate Redistricting Committee will meet tomorrow at 10 a.m. in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building to review the proposed House map before it moves on to the Senate floor for a vote.

The House Redistricting Committee is set to meet tomorrow at 1 p.m. in the same room to consider the Senate’s proposed map, which will likely be voted on later today.

Courts & the Law, News

NC Supreme Court takes up redistricting, power struggle between Cooper, legislature

The North Carolina Supreme Court heard two major cases this morning — one about redistricting and voting rights and the other about the legislature’s efforts to diminish the Governor’s powers.

In Dickson v. Rucho, a challenge to state legislative and congressional maps, the plaintiffs asked for the case to be remanded back to the trial court for a judgment in their favor.

“We don’t yet have a remedy ordered by a state court,” said one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, Anita Earls, who is Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Earls argued that when the court decides federal issues that are contrary to binding precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court, as it did in Dickson and North Carolina v. Covington, the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions impose a duty to conform its decision to federal law and enter a judgment for the plaintiffs.

She also argued that the state trial court needed to address state constitutional violations, whereas the federal court could not. Earls called the trial court’s finding erroneous and said the plaintiffs deserved a remedy after their rights were impacted by the unconstitutionality of the maps.

“A violation has been shown, it’s now time for remedial proceedings,” she said.

The attorney for legislative leaders, Michael McKnight, argued that the plaintiffs don’t have the ability to file for a remedy because the case is moot.

“There is no case or controversy right now with regard to the 2001 maps they’re challenging,” he said, noting that those maps can’t be used again because of the federal courts’ rulings.

McKnight added that if there is a problem with the new districts once enacted, the plaintiffs would have to file a new lawsuit.

Special Deputy Attorney General Alec Peters argued for the state that the case should be remanded back to the state trial court for a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs.

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The state Supreme Court judges also heard argument in Cooper v. Berger over the General Assembly’s changes to the State Board of Elections and State Ethics Commission, now knows as the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement.

Jim Phillips, the attorney for Gov. Roy Cooper relied on the Separation of Powers clause of the North Carolina Constitution.

He said it is “crystal clear” after an examination of the functions and duties of the Bard that it is executive in nature. Because of that, Cooper should be able to appoint a majority of the Board so that they share his views and priorities.

A provision of the law creating the new Board allows for former Gov. Pat McCrory’s Board of Elections appointment Kim Westbrook Strach to remain Executive Director over the new Board.

Members of the new Board are to be split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, whom Cooper would be required to choose from a slate of people approved by the heads of each party. Phillips said given the choice, Cooper wouldn’t appoint anyone from the list already released.

An example Phillips of an executive function that the Board carries out is early voting. He said Cooper has said he wants to expand early voting, but a Board that doesn’t share his views and priorities could prevent that from happening.

Noah Huffstetler III, who represents legislative leaders, said the General Assembly has the final decision making role in the Governor’s role with respect to the Board.

He said the restructuring of the Board was to better ensure its independence and quasi-judicial nature. He added that Cooper’s argument was “stunning” in that he wants to control people so that they are “robotically inclined to follow his views and priorities.”

“That was not the legislative intent of that statute,” he said of the Constitution.

Phillips said the case was not about a challenge to the the legislature’s restructuring of the entire board.

“The Governor’s challenge is to the General Assembly’s appointment of the Executive Director and the taking from him the ability to appoint a majority of members who share his views and priorities.”

He added that if the Supreme Court remanded the case back to a lower court, they would only end up arguing again back at the high court.

News

House committee approves proposed legislative map with one GOP ‘no;’ Senate OKs its map in floor vote

Some areas of the proposed House legislative map were changed before a committee meeting Friday.

Debate in the House redistricting committee Friday over a new proposed legislative map got a little more tedious than prior debate in the Senate committee.

House Democratic Leader Darren Jackson was grilled by Republicans for over an hour after introducing an amendment to adopt an alternative map created by the plaintiffs in North Carolina v. Covington, the racial gerrymandering case dictating the redraw.

In presenting the alternative map, Jackson said he believed it corrected many of the old mistakes and new mistakes Republicans made in the redistricting process. He made clear that he did not draw the map, and therefore couldn’t answer all technical questions, but said he would answer what he could.

Republicans alleged that the map was “Democratically gerrymandered,” unnecessarily double-bunked good party members and violated a state Supreme Court ruling that dictates Whole County Provisions.

Rep. Nelson Dollar (R-Wake), who co-chaired the meeting, criticized Jackson when he couldn’t answer a question about the motives behind double-bunking in the alternative map.

“You offer an amendment and yet you want to take ownership but don’t want to take ownership,” he said.

Members of both the House and Senate redistricting committee meetings were provided both alternative maps and a letter from the Covington plaintiffs Wednesday. The letter explained constitutional defects in the GOP proposed maps and offered to answer questions members might have about the alternative maps — which the plaintiffs also said during the last court hearing they intended to introduce.

Another point of contention during the meeting was the GOP criteria not to use any racial data to redraw legislative maps.

“I do not believe totally ignoring race is the way you fix racial gerrymanders,” Jackson said.

Rep. Bert Jones (R-Caswell, Rockingham) pointed out that the General Assembly currently has more African American members than ever before.

“Racial gerrymandering isn’t about electing a higher number of African Americans,” Jackson responded. “It’s about giving African Americans the ability to elect candidates of their choice in more areas.”

Similarly, Rep. Cecil Brockman (D-Guilford) told his colleagues that while there are more African American legislators, they have less power and less influence because of racial gerrymandering.

The amendment ultimately failed along party lines, with a 15-26 vote.

Two other amendments also failed — one by Rep. Michael Speciale (R-Beaufort, Craven, Pamlico) to fix his districts (in which he is double-bunked in the new map) and one by Rep. Howard J. Hunter III (D-Bertie, Gates, Hertford, Pasquotank) to change his districts so as not to split Bertie and Hertford counties.

An technical amendment by Jackson was approved.

The overall GOP proposed House legislative map, which featured some changes since the original was released over the weekend, was passed 25-16, with Speciale voting outside of his party.

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, the proposed legislative map that was debated and passed in committee last night was approved in a second reading 27-16.

The nearly four hours of debate followed the pattern of Thursday’s discussion, with Democrats arguing Republican designed maps do not sufficiently address the problem of racial gerrymandering.

Republican legislative leaders have emphasized that race was not taken into account at all in the drawing of the new maps — a position that Democrats argued is a wrong-headed reaction to the court’s finding that the GOP overused it previously.

“When you are looking at a case that was based upon an unconstitutional racial gerrymandering, it is impossible to come up with a cure without considering race or by doing it in a vacuum,” said Sen. Floyd McKissick (D-Durham).

Sen. Ralph Hise, chairman of the Senate’s redistricting committee, said Democratic objections were just sour grapes from the minority party.

“They’ve found an argument about how race is used and we’ve addressed that argument by not using it at all,” he said. “But they’re still upset because they didn’t get everything they wanted in the urban areas, which requires total domination in those areas.”

Democrats can’t win in the state with their “far left message,” Hise said, adding that they would rather change the maps than their political positions.

Sen. Angela Bryant (D-Nash) took exception to that.

“What I care about in this proposal and in the case against racial gerrymandering is racial gerrymandering in order to promote far right ideas,” Bryant said.

Her rural area is home to plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the previous maps, Bryant said, and their concern is not Democratic power in urban areas or a left wing agenda.

“It’s fighting against the racial prejudice that we feel in our communities,” she said.

The House redistricting committee will review the proposed Senate legislative map next week. The House as a whole will take a floor vote on the proposed House legislative map Monday.

Joe Killian of NC Policy Watch contributed to this report.

News

Proposed Senate legislative map advances along party lines with changes to Wake, no public input

Left: Wake County districts as successfully amended by Democratic Leader Dan Blue. Right: Wake County districts as proposed by Republican redistricting leadership.

The changes to a proposed Senate legislative map Thursday night were minimal, despite efforts from Democratic lawmakers to correct unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.

The Senate redistricting committee met for about three hours to go over the proposed remedial map that was released over the weekend. Despite hours Tuesday of listening to North Carolina voters express dissatisfaction with the maps, nothing had changed when Thursday’s meeting began.

In the last two hours of the meeting, two of the five amendments that Democrats offered up passed the committee — one that moves Sen. Ben Clark’s (D-Cumberland, Hoke) home into the right district lines and another that redefines the district lines in Wake County, as drawn by Democratic Leader Sen. Dan Blue.

There were two amendments that failed along party lines that would have redefined district lines in Mecklenburg and Guilford counties. Blue also submitted the remedial Senate map proposed by the plaintiffs in North Carolina v. Covington (the case dictating the redraw) as the last amendment — it also failed along party lines.

“I think the ridiculous nature of this map probably speaks for itself,” said Sen. Ralph Hise (R-Mitchell), who chairs the Senate redistricting committee.

He pointed out that there were a number of double-bunkings in the Covington map for no good reason and indicated that it would prevent Republicans from being elected in the future.

The Covington map would have undone the amendments that both Clark and Blue successfully passed in the committee — they both indicated that they wouldn’t care. Clark said that if the Covington map meant that he had to be put out of office, he would still gladly accept its passage.

He added that the people of North Carolina deserved a fair map and that the Covington map was the furthest away from gerrymandering that it could be.

Similarly, Blue said he supported the map because it was fair. He gave a shoutout to Common Cause NC and said he has seen the fight for independent redistricting grow over the years.

Blue said he didn’t realize there were as many double-buntings in the Covington map as there were, but said the folks who drew it were “not as politically sensitive as those who serve.”

“It makes all of us gravitate toward the middle a whole lot more,” he said.

Hise twice asked the committee to reject the map, telling members that it considered race and its motive is to lessen GOP representation in the Senate.

The map failed along party lines with a 9-4 vote.

The overall proposed Senate map advanced along a 9-4 party line vote.

Democrats grilled Hise at the beginning of the meeting about his interpretation of the court’s order and whether or not he believed the court dictated that the committee not use race. They also asked about political considerations that were made during the mapmaking process and discussed the large efficiency gap in the proposed map that gives Republicans a large edge.

Sen Terry Van Duyn (D-Buncombe) also asked whether any consideration was made to the public’s call to take politics out of the redistricting process. Hise responded that he didn’t believe in unicorns, fairies or the “mythical nonpartisan redistricting committee.”

Hise also blamed the court for dictating a “compressed timeline” to redraw the maps, which resulted in changes to the way public comment was used.

“We are under the gun,” he said.

The Senate as a whole is expected to vote on the map tomorrow. The House redistricting committee is set to meet about its map at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow in room 643 of the Legislative Office Building.