Judge upholds NC Senate district maps challenged over racial bias

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A judge refused Friday to prevent the use of two North Carolina Senate districts drawn by Republican legislators starting with the 2024 elections and to order them replaced with boundaries that lawsuit plaintiffs argue would more likely ensure Black voters can elect a preferred candidate in one of them.

U.S. District Judge James Dever denied a preliminary injunction requested by two Black residents who sued over the Senate districts in November, alleging racial bias. They contend GOP legislative leaders likely violated the federal Voting Rights Act by fashioning the two districts so that Black voters in northeastern counties were split between the two, diluting their voting strength.

The plaintiffs proposed remedial districts, one of which would have a Black voting age population of nearly 50% or slightly above it, depending on the counting method. The Black voting age populations in each of the districts enacted by the General Assembly approach 30%.

Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, looks over a proposed map of districts during debate over a redistricting bill at the Legislative Building, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023, in Raleigh, N.C. (AP Photo/Chris Seward, File)

Dever, who was nominated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush and once a redistricting lawyer, wrote that there wasn’t evidence presented to him or the General Assembly showing a majority-Black state Senate district was required in the region.

And a principle that courts should not change election rules close to an election applies here because activity for the March 5 primaries is underway, Dever wrote. While there are no primaries for the seats for the 1st and 2nd Senate Districts being challenged, attorneys for the GOP legislators have argued that granting an injunction could require many other districts — some with primaries — to be redrawn.

“The court declines plaintiffs’ invitation to issue the requested extraordinary, mandatory preliminary injunction and thereby inflict voter confusion and chaos on the 2024 Senate elections in North Carolina,” Dever wrote in a 69-page order.

Thorough their lawyers, plaintiffs Rodney Pierce of Halifax County and Moses Matthews of Martin County quickly filed Friday their notice to appeal the ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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Every Senate seat is critical for Republicans as they seek to retain their veto-proof majority in the chamber. They currently hold 30 of the 50 seats — the minimum required to override vetoes if the GOP caucus stays united. The two current senators representing the region are white Republicans. A ruling ultimately favoring the plaintiffs likely would ensure a Democrat winning one of the seats.

The two voters argue that Black voters who comprise a politically cohesive unit within the state’s “Black Belt” region won’t have the opportunity to elect a favored candidate in either district because of racially polarized voting favoring majority-white residents who vote in blocs.

Dever agreed with attorneys for the GOP legislators that rulings in previous recent North Carolina redistricting litigation have concluded that voting is not racially polarized at legally significant levels to justify districts like those the plaintiffs seek. Senate Republicans said they did not use racial data in drawing the chamber’s districts in the fall.

The North Carolina state House reviews copies of a map proposal for new state House districts during a committee hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. (AP Photo/Hannah Schoenbaum)

Pierce and Matthews have said action is needed by early February so that new districts can be drawn and possible primary elections held in mid-May, when any runoff from the March primaries would occur.

Pierce and Matthews reside in the 2nd District, which stretches more than 160 miles from the Virginia border down to parts of the Atlantic coastline. Their lawyers wrote that it would be relatively easy to draw a compact majority-Black district that ensures the rights of minority voters aren’t eroded.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein aren’t named in the lawsuit but filed a court brief backing the preliminary injunction.

Republicans enacted in October new lines for all the state Senate and House districts and the state’s 14 U.S. House seats for use through the 2030 elections. At least two other lawsuits have been filed alleging the boundaries are illegal racial gerrymanders. But the plaintiffs in neither case are aggressively trying to block the maps from being used in the 2024 election cycle.

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The judge refused to prevent the use of two North Carolina Senate districts drawn by Republican legislators for the 2024 elections, despite a lawsuit alleging racial bias. The plaintiffs argued that the districts dilute the voting strength of Black voters and proposed remedial districts with a higher Black voting age population. The judge denied the preliminary injunction, citing lack of evidence for a majority-Black state Senate district in the region and the potential for voter confusion and chaos. The plaintiffs have filed an appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Republican legislators argued that granting an injunction could require many other districts to be redrawn, and previous redistricting litigation has concluded that voting is not racially polarized at legally significant levels. The plaintiffs argue that action is needed by early February to draw new districts, but the judge’s decision means the current districts will be used for the 2024 election cycle. Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein support the preliminary injunction, and at least two other lawsuits have been filed alleging illegal racial gerrymandering in the state.

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