Q And A: The Wake County Election Lines

Dec 17, 2015

A federal judge in Raleigh is hearing arguments this week on a case that challenges the legality of new electoral maps for the Wake County boards of commissioners and education. While several lawsuits have challenged the constitutionality of districts drawn by the Republican-majority General Assembly since 2011, this one focuses on the maps in only one county.

Here’s a look at the case and the arguments advanced by the two sides.

Q: What is the central issue?

A: The question for U.S. District Court Judge James Dever is whether Republican state lawmakers acted fairly when they drew a new voting map for the Wake County Board of Education in 2013, and when they drew a similar map for the board of commissioners this year. In both instances, lawmakers re-drew the county’s nine voting districts into seven, and created two new districts that divide the county like a donut: one represents the urban core and the other represents the suburban and rural outer ring.

Under the old maps, citizens could vote for candidates running for any of the nine districts. Under the new maps, citizens can vote only for candidates running in the two districts that correspond to their residence.

Q: What is the basic argument?

A: The Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association and other groups filed lawsuits with the objective of returning to the old maps, and they were combined into the case being heard this week. They argue that lawmakers illegally used race as a factor to gain political influence for Republicans. They say lawmakers disproportionately packed minority voters into higher-population districts, making their votes count less than those of people in lower-population areas, and therefore reducing their influence. They also argue that lawmakers deliberately used race as a predominant factor in drawing a district that includes Southeast Raleigh, which has a majority black population.

Q: Who is defending the new voting maps?

A: The question should be: Who isn’t defending the new maps? In similar lawsuits, the state lawmakers who drew the maps defended them in court. But in this case, a federal appeals court decided the Wake County Board of Elections should defend the maps because it is the organization that is tasked with implementing them.

Q: What is their argument?

A: When they approved the maps, Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot of Wake County and other lawmakers said their intention was to make elections more fair across the county. The attorneys representing the Wake County Board of Elections, argue the maps were drawn in a good faith effort to create districts with as nearly equal of a population as possible. They also argue that race was not a predominant factor in drawing any of the maps. "Political or partisan motivations are legitimate redistricting considerations as long as they do not go too far," attorney Charles Marshall wrote in a court filing.

Q: What are the practical impacts?

An immediate ruling could affect elections for the Board of Commissioners. Candidates can file to run for the 2016 election until next Monday. Meanwhile, candidates for the school board can file to run next summer because their elections are nonpartisan.