Voting rights groups file sweeping lawsuit against NC redistricting plans

Published December 21, 2023

By Lynn Bonner

NC Senate districts in eastern North Carolina

Voting rights groups in North Carolina filed a sweeping redistricting lawsuit Tuesday that claims the Republican-led legislature violated federal law by racially gerrymandering the state House, state Senate and congressional plans for election districts. 

The suit by the state NAACP, Common Cause and eight Black voters says that the election districts violate the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. constitutional amendments that prohibit racial discrimination. 

“Everyone’s vote should count equally,” said Deborah Maxwell, North Carolina NAACP president, “We are not three-fifths of anyone anymore.”

Maxwell spoke at a news conference Tuesday morning where the plaintiffs and their lawyers discussed the lawsuit.

Deborah Maxwell, President of the NAACP North Carolina Conference (Screengrab from press briefing)
Deborah Maxwell, President of the NAACP North Carolina Conference (Screengrab from press briefing)


The district boundaries for state House, state Senate, and the U.S. House elections severely diminish Black voting power because the General Assembly intentionally dismantled existing districts where Black voters had the chance to elect the candidates of their choice — both by diluting Black voting power in the state’s “Black Belt,” and by “selectively targeting Black voters in other areas of the state,” the suit says. 

Republicans maintained throughout redistricting committee meetings and floor debates this year that they did not use racial data in creating the maps but did use partisan data. 

In response to questions about the plans in October, Sen. Paul Newton, a Senate redistricting chairman, said they are “fair and legal and comply with the law.”

This is the third redistricting lawsuit filed in the last month. Two voters are suing over the state Senate plan, saying legislators diluted Black voting power by failing to draw districts where Black voters could elect candidates of their choice. 

Black and Latino voters sued over the congressional plan, citing racial gerrymandering of four congressional districts. 

The wider ranging lawsuit filed Tuesday does not seek to change election boundary lines for the 2024 election, but aims to secure redrawn plans for 2026. Candidate filing for the 2024 election ended last Friday.

That means the 2024 elections will, “unfortunately, go forward under discriminatory maps,” said Hilary Harris Klein, senior voting rights counsel at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Klein is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs.

Hilary Harris Klein, Senior Voting Rights Counsel at Southern Coalition for Social Justice (Screengrab from press briefing)

Hilary Harris Klein, Senior Voting Rights Counsel at Southern Coalition for Social Justice (Screengrab from press briefing)


“The conduct of the General Assembly when they undertook this redistricting absolutely does show an intent to target Black communities specifically,” Klein said. “It is readily apparent when you look at them that lines were drawn and districts were drawn to selectively target those communities to dilute and diminish their vote.”

Republicans waited until October to approve redistricting plans so they could “run out the clock,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of North Carolina Common Cause. 

“They waited months and didn’t do anything,” Phillips said. Republicans adopted new plans in one week, without giving the public a chance to comment on the proposals once they were revealed, he said. 

“You can’t help but think that was part of the strategy,” Phillips said. 

The lawsuit argues that a U.S. Supreme Court decision handed down earlier this year in an Alabama redistricting case makes it clear that Black voting power in areas with high Black voting populations must be considered when drawing districts.  

Republicans said during floor debates that they did not do a study of racially polarized voting because other studies have shown that there isn’t any, so a new study was not needed.

Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina (Screengrab from press briefing)
Bob Phillips, Executive Director of Common Cause North Carolina (Screengrab from press briefing)


The lawsuit says legislators were provided with an expert analysis before they adopted the new maps that “set forth evidence of legally significant racially polarized voting in several counties of North Carolina and showed at least one clear-as-day Voting Rights Act violation within the proposed Senate plan.”

Klein pointed to the creation of the “Wilmington notch,” as an example of a racial gerrymander in the state Senate plan. 

As NC Newsline wrote in November, Republicans carved out Black neighborhoods in Wilmington from New Hanover’s state Senate district and attached them to a Senate district dominated by Columbus and Brunswick counties. 

Removing those voters from the New Hanover Senate district separated downtown Wilmington from the rest of the county, made the Brunswick/Columbus Senate district larger than the ideal population and the New Hanover district smaller, and made both districts less compact, the lawsuit says. It calls the creation of those districts a “textbook racial gerrymander.”

In October, the Southern Coalition wrote legislators about gerrymandering in the Senate map’s eastern districts, NC Newsline reported. 

The lawsuit calls out those same Senate districts as “an open defiance of the requirements of the Voting Rights Act.”

Two Senate districts crack Black Belt counties, and pair Black communities with coastal communities hundreds of miles away that are “overwhelmingly white,” wealthier, and have different needs and interests. 

The lawsuit challenged the 1st Congressional District that covers eastern and northeastern counties, and districts in the Triad that split Black communities among four districts and “will deprive Black voters in this area any opportunity to elect a candidate of choice and will completely shut them out of any representation before Congress.”

The new congressional district plan will almost certainly lead to Republicans retaking the majority in the state’s congressional delegation.

Under a court-drawn congressional map used in last year’s elections, the state sent seven Republicans and seven Democrats to the U.S. House. Citing a new gerrymandered congressional map, three incumbent Democrats are not running for reelection to Congress. Republicans are expected to win 10 or 11 of the state’s 14 House seats. 

With the new district boundaries, Republicans are also expected to solidify their already veto-proof majorities in the state legislature. Duke mathematicians said the maps are less responsive to changes in voter sentiment than were plans the Democratic majority on state Supreme Court struck down in 2022 on the basis of extreme partisan gerrymandering. That means that even if voter opinion shifts dramatically toward Democrats, redistricting maps will elect more Republicans than would party-neutral districts.