On February 5, a three-judge panel struck down North Carolina's congressional districts, enacted in 2011 by the Republican-led state legislature, as unconstitutional.
The court ruled that GOP lawmakers had diluted African-American voting power in the state by packing as many of the state's African-American voters into Districts 1 and 12 as they could.
This ruling was only the beginning of a chaotic process that has affected the upcoming congressional race and left some candidates unsure of whom they will be campaigning to represent in 2017.
- The previous NC congressional district map (top) was struck down as unconstitutional by a district court on Feb. 5. The newly proposed maps (bottom) were drawn on Feb. 19, but also face a pending lawsuit calling them unconstitutional.
On February 19, the state legislature approved a new map that at first glance looks sensible compared to the old, in which the serpentine-shaped District 12 slithered through six counties stretching from Charlotte to Greensboro. The state's legislative black caucus, among other groups, quickly found the new map not to be a remedy at all, however, and within days a lawsuit was filed stating that the new district map was as unconstitutional as the last one; that instead of packing African-American voters into districts, the legislature had "instead scattered them to the winds."
The lawsuit, filed by David Harris of Durham and Christine Bowser of Mecklenburg County, states that the new map overreaches allowances for political gerrymandering in order to keep a stranglehold on a Republican majority that does not represent the state's voting population. The plaintiffs also state that the new maps target the few minority representatives, like U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, who was drawn out of the district she currently represents and would live 90 miles from it if the proposed lines stand.
"The General Assembly has diced up African-American voters across nearly all congressional districts, once again ensuring that minority voter influence is suppressed by the white majority," the lawsuit states.
The same architects of the original 2011 plan, including N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho of southeastern Mecklenburg County, designed the new map and claimed to have completely ignored race as a factor, instead openly admitting to using political gerrymandering as a priority in designing the new maps.
Not taking race into consideration at all could be a violation of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires the creation of minority opportunity districts in some circumstances.
Rucho and others publicly bragged that their priority in designing the new maps was to keep the Republican-Democratic balance at 10 to 3 respective representatives, despite the court finding those numbers were reached under unconstitutional districting.
Opponents of the new map state that, while political gerrymandering is technically allowed under the Constitution, the process used to create the new district lines surpasses any past precedent for such a use.
For Adams, who has represented District 12 since 2014, the district court decision and the ensuing debate over the newly proposed district lines is the right conversation at the wrong time.
On the same day the state legislature approved the newly proposed maps, lawmakers also pushed back the congressional primary from March 15, when all the other primaries will take place, to June 7. Whether or not the court overturns the newly proposed districts — a decision on the lawsuit is expected any day — Adams worries the timing will hurt turnout for the congressional primary.
"I don't support racial gerrymandering, so I think they made a proper ruling there. But here we are in the middle of a campaign, and so everything is chaotic. If citizens don't know where their lines are and who their representatives are, it's going to be more confusing for them. It creates even greater apathy for people to say, 'I'm just not going to vote.' Clearly we don't want to see that," Adams said. "Pushing it back means that you now have two primaries. It's difficult enough to get people to come out and vote one time."
- U.S. Rep. Alma Adams is currently running for re-election in the 12th district.
Adams said she will continue to run in District 12 regardless of what happens with the map. Law does not prohibit someone living outside the district from representing it, and Adams is not unfamiliar with the Charlotte area. Mecklenburg County makes up 52 percent of the district as it stood before the judge's Feb. 5 ruling, and she already represents more than half of District 12 as it stands in the newly proposed map.
"They can draw me out of the district but they can't draw the district out of me," Adams said, sitting in the back of a coffee shop in Plaza Midwood. "I've been supporting and working and bringing resources into this 52 percent, representing them from my 90 miles, so that doesn't change anything. We've done an excellent job. I haven't found anyone in Charlotte to say we have not done an excellent job in Charlotte."
Adams, who owns an art gallery near her home in Greensboro, said she has contemplated moving to Charlotte but won't make any commitments.
"In the future, I don't know because it depends on where the lines will finally rest, so I'm not premature about making those decisions," she said. "I could move tomorrow down the street and they could move the district some other place. There are other people who may be talking about running who may not end up living in it either."
Any talk of gerrymandering in North Carolina would be incomplete without mentioning N.C. Sen. Jeff Jackson, who has led the sometimes-lonely fight against gerrymandering for years.
Jackson, who represents N.C. Senate district 37, which includes parts of east and southwest Charlotte, wants to bring about a complete overhaul to voting districts not only for congressional representatives like Adams but for state representatives like himself.
He hopes the pending congressional district lawsuit is proof that people are finally ready to pay attention to the gerrymandering issue in North Carolina. He has stated that he believes North Carolina has the "absolute worst" redistricting policy in the country.
"It feels like the cavalry has arrived," Jackson said. "Politicians in both parties have proven themselves incapable of solving this problem. We need the courts to step in or this is going to take another couple decades to work out, and that would be a disaster for our democracy."
Speaking over the phone on March 7, Jackson said he was expecting a decision from the district court on the congressional redistricting at any moment, but said the real fight will be in the Supreme Court over the General Assembly lines.
"The most important thing that can come out of this lawsuit is a crystal clear legal precedent that can be applied to the state House and Senate," Jackson said. "We need to redraw the congressional map, but frankly that's not nearly as important as fairly drawing the General Assembly map."
Jackson said he hopes an affirmation of the current case will be just the first step in a new movement toward more common sense, nonpartisan districting policies in the state.
"If the Supreme Court affirms this case it will produce a political tidal wave that smashes into the gerrymandered maps drawn by the Republican majority," he said. "The congressional maps are not nearly as important as the General Assembly maps. The General Assembly draws the congressional maps. The root cause of this problem is in the General Assembly. There's every reason to think that if the Supreme Court upholds this case it will mean major changes for our gerrymandered maps in the General Assembly, and it can't happen fast enough."
BEYOND THE PRESIDENTIAL: Who else is on the ballot come primary day in N.C.?
You already know the presidential names on the ballot on Tuesday, and you've probably already decided who you're voting for in that regard, so here are some names you're not as familiar with. Remember that North Carolina allows unaffiliated voters to choose an aisle and vote in that primary. There are too many races here to breakdown, so you'll be responsible for Googling the folks you haven't heard of, but this list is a good start:
U.S. Senate: Kevin Griffin, Chris Rey, Deborah Ross, Ernest Reeves
N.C. Governor: Ken Spaulding, Roy Cooper
N.C. Lieutenant Governor: Linda Coleman, Holly Jones, Robert Earl Wilson, Ronald Newton
N.C. Attorney General: Josh Stein, Marcus Williams
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction: Henry Pankey, June Atkinson
Meck. County Commissioner At-Large: Trevor Fuller, Pat Cotham, Damiko Faulkner, Ella Scarborough
US Senate: Dr. Greg Brannon, Richard Burr, Larry Holmquist, Paul Wright
N.C. Governor: Robert Brawley, Pat McCrory, Charles Kenneth Moss
N.C. Attorney General: Jim O’Neill, Buck Newton
N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction: J. Wesley Sills, Rosemary Stein, Mark Johnson
US Senate: Sean Haugh, Dr. Mohammad Nasiri