A federal trial scrutinizing nearly 30 North Carolina legislative districts concluded Friday after attorneys presented conflicting arguments over whether increasing the number of majority-black districts reinforces outdated race-based political divisions or is a sensible legal strategy. The three-judge panel gave no timeframe on when it would rule at the close of the weeklong trial spurred by a voters’ lawsuit, but any decision is at least several weeks away and could be appealed. The timing of the ruling could determine whether Republican lawmakers have to scramble to redraw boundaries in time for the November general elections. The state’s lawyers, who are defending the current boundaries as legal, have said that if any adjustments are ordered, they should be delayed until the 2018 elections. Some of North Carolina’s congressional boundaries were struck down as illegal racial gerrymanders by a different federal judicial panel in February, based in part on arguments similar to what the plaintiffs used in this week’s case. The legislature, forced to redraw the congressional districts right away, delayed the primary for the seats until June 7. Legislative primaries under the current maps were held last month.
Current and former Democratic legislators, some of the voters who sued, and redistricting experts testified during the week as the plaintiffs offered evidence showing there was no need for GOP legislative leaders to draw so many House and Senate districts with black voting-age populations above 50 percent.
There were 32 such districts in the 2011 maps, compared to just 10 in the maps drawn by mostly Democratic legislators in the 2000s, when black candidates were winning seats in districts where black voting-age populations were closer to 40 and 45 percent, according to the lawsuit. That’s because the preferred candidates of black voters were winning with a coalition of white voters, said Anita Earls, one of the voters’ attorneys. She said some majority-black districts were legally necessary.
Those election results were in the hands of Republican legislators at the time of the 2011 redistricting debate, Earls said during her closing argument, but they voted to raise the black population in these districts above 50 percent anyway, which she said violated the U.S. Voting Rights Act.