Experts say Black lawmakers are sure to lose seats under new NC legislative maps
Published January 20, 2022
By Lynn Bonner
Two Black incumbent senators in eastern North Carolina have no chance of winning reelection in their newly drawn districts, according to an analysis by UCLA political scientist Jeffrey B. Lewis, who testified for Republicans in the Superior Court redistricting trial this month.
Sen. Ernestine Bazemore, a Democrat from Bertie County, is in a new 10-county district. According to Lewis, the candidate from that district whom Black voters prefer would win the Democratic primary nearly all the time but would have no chance of winning the general election.
The same would happen in the newly reconstituted district where Sen. Toby Fitch, a Wilson Democrat, lives.
The newly drawn districts would prevent Black voters who live in parts of North Carolina’s Black Belt — counties with fertile soil worked by enslaved Africans and their descendants before the Civil War — from electing their preferred candidates to the state Senate.
Black residents are the majority in some of those counties, including Bertie, Halifax, Hertford, and Northampton. They are part of a rural stronghold for Democrats in statewide elections.
Losing Black representation in the legislature could be devastating, said Syene Jasim, a Black Voters Matter organizer in northeastern North Carolina.
“Having someone represent our interests – not only being Black. That’s really the biggest thing,” Jasim said in an interview.
States are required to draw new election districts after every census to account for population shifts, growth and decline. In North Carolina, legislators draw plans to benefit the party in power.
A “painfully obvious” change
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice is representing Common Cause and the state NAACP in the redistricting lawsuit that claims legislative plans dilute Black voting power. The civil rights groups are suing several Republican lawmakers who drew the maps, claiming the plans are extreme gerrymanders that lock in GOP majorities and intentionally discriminate against minority voters. The Common Cause case is combined with redistricting lawsuits filed by two other sets of challengers.
The challengers lost at the trial court level earlier this month. Though they agreed that Republicans intentionally drew partisan maps to benefit their party, the three presiding Superior Court judges said they couldn’t stop it. The constitutional questions raised in the lawsuit don’t apply to redistricting, they wrote, and there were no facts pointing to intentional racial discrimination.
The challengers are appealing to the state Supreme Court.
Before North Carolina legislators draw districts, the state map is broken into “county clusters” based on population. Republicans had two options for clusters in northeast North Carolina.
In October, lawyers with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice warned legislators that they were using the option that was “obviously worse for Black voters.” Republicans say they did not use partisan or racial data in drawing the new maps.
But in an Oct. 25 letter, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice lawyers wrote that the 10-county cluster legislators were using “most certainly destroys the ability of Black voters to elect the candidate of their choice,” something that “would have been painfully obvious to anyone with a passing familiarity with North Carolina’s political geography.”
Sen. Ralph Hise testifies about the latest maps. (Screengrab of trial videostream/WRAL.com)
Republican legislators drew the 10-county district in order to keep together four counties in the state’s northeast corner, testified Sen. Ralph Hise, a co-chairman of his chamber’s redistricting committee, this month.
Before they began working on the new plans, Republicans rejected repeated requests from Democrats to study racially polarized voting in the state. Hise testified that they did not commission such a study because the U.S. Department of Justice no longer reviews North Carolina redistricting plans.
For many years, the federal Voting Rights Act required states and counties with histories of racial discrimination in elections to get approval from the Justice Department before new districts were used or new voting laws went into effect, a process called “preclearance.” The Justice Department could reject discriminatory election laws or redistricting maps that took away Black or Latino voters’ power.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states subject to that preclearance requirement no longer had to do it.
Legislators needed a study of racially polarized voting in 2011 to comply with preclearance, Hise testified. But since the 2013 decision, “we are no longer under preclearance for redrawing the map,” he said.
Kathay Feng, Common Cause
A national trend
Legislatures around the country are diluting the power of Black and Latino voters under the guise of race-blind redistricting, said Kathay Feng, national redistricting director at Common Cause. “We are definitely seeing a playbook that is being carried out in state after state where legislators are pretending to ignore race even as they embed racial dilution behind closed doors,” she said.
Civil rights groups are suing South Carolina elected officials in federal court over that state’s new state House redistricting plan, claiming it intentionally dilutes Black voting strength.
Federal lawsuits also claim that Georgia’s new congressional and legislative districts dilute Black voting power, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Texas legislators are facing a blizzard of lawsuits claiming their redistricting plans discriminate against voters of color.
And the Ohio Supreme Court last week threw out that state’s legislative and congressional redistricting plans, saying they violated state constitutional limits on partisan gerrymandering, according to the Ohio Capital Journal.
“If you don’t have people in the state legislature who are listening to and truly representing every constituency of the state, you will see a return to white supremacy,” Feng said. “It’s a real concern.”
Advocates reject GOP claims of colorblindness
Keisha Dobie of Elizabeth City said legislators’ claim that they worked without using information about race was not a legitimate or sensible way to draw districts. ““I don’t know how you can ignore what race people are and where the majority of those people reside,” she said. “I believe they had a plan.”
Dobie is a doctoral student and former teacher who learned about redistricting from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. She talked to other residents about filling out the census, voting, community issues and the process of drawing new districts.
Dobie said in an interview that the new districts legislators enacted point to an even greater need for public interest in redistricting, including among high school and college students.
“We need a different mindset,” she said. “Grassroots organizations have to play a different game and have a different level of response.”
Jasmin, the Black Voters Matter organizer, said the job of redistricting should be taken out of legislators’ hands. Giving the job to an independent observer would be the fairest way to redistrict, he said.
“I don’t understand how gerrymandering is legal,” Jasmin said.
The voting rights bill sitting in the U.S. Senate would ban gerrymandering in the drawing of congressional districts and it would effectively restore the requirement for some states and counties to have new districts precleared by the U.S. Justice Department.
The bill is not expected to overcome a Senate filibuster.