Redistricting or gerrymandering? N.C. dispute embodies national debate

States around the country are embroiled in legal battles over voting requirements, district lines, and the rules governing elections. But few exemplify this heated battle as much as North Carolina.

Corey Lowenstein/The News & Observer/AP
North Carolina State Senators Dan Soucek, left, and Brent Jackson, right, review historical maps of the state on Feb. 16 in Raleigh, N.C.

North Carolina remains locked in a tense legal battle over legislative redistricting that could have far-reaching consequences in the state’s upcoming congressional primary.

States around the country are embroiled in legal battles over voting requirements, district lines, and the rules governing elections. But few exemplify this heated battle as much as North Carolina, where the state legislature redrew congressional districts last month after a federal court ruled that race played too large a role in previous lines.

Democrats and Republicans are evenly matched in North Carolina and major elections are often settled by a handful of votes. Nonetheless, under the 2011 maps drawn by the legislature, Republicans control 10 of the 13 congressional seats.

The plaintiffs who challenged the previous lines are now accusing Republican legislators of redrawing them to favor the GOP and weaken minority voting power. On Thursday, the plaintiffs’ lawyers called on the federal court to rework the boundaries itself.

For their part, state attorneys have urged the three-judge panel to let the new boundaries approved by lawmakers last month stand for the June 7 primary. They said in a written argument that no gerrymandering occurred and that race was not the predominant factor in drawing any of the districts.

The new "congressional plan follows traditional redistricting criteria more faithfully than any prior congressional plan in North Carolina in at least 25 years," the lawyers wrote in the court filing. "The new plan is not a gerrymander of any kind: the map speaks for itself."

The difference between redistricting and gerrymandering is a matter of intent. Redistricting is a federally governed process designed to ensure that congressional districts adequately reflect the shifts in population distribution. Gerrymandering refers to the use of the redistricting process to unfairly disenfranchise specific groups of people.

North Carolina has been marred in controversy surrounding the drawing of its congressional district lines for years. The current debate was ignited Feb. 5, when a federal court in Greensboro threw out the majority black 1st and 12th districts and ordered new lines within two weeks.

The state’s General Assembly complied and delayed next week's congressional primary elections until June 7.

GOP legislative leaders say they drew the new maps without any considerations for racial demographics. Yet their critics say the Republican lawmakers misconstrued what the court said, arguing that race must still be taken into consideration to ensure the power of minority voters isn't diluted.

The court has yet to announce how it plans to proceed: whether it will accept the newly drawn boundaries or decide to draw them itself. Candidate filing under the new maps is scheduled to begin March 16.

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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