by Melissa Boughton, NC Policy Watch
Democratic candidates are paralyzed until Republican lawmakers redraw the State House and Senate districts that were found to have been unconstitutionally racially gerrymandered.
The GOP partisan advantage in the absence of constitutional districts is so great that it’s driven opponents into the shadows and all but halted their fundraising efforts for the 2018 election, according to testimony during a federal court hearing Thursday.
The courtroom was packed as a three-judge panel listened to arguments addressing how much time legislators should have to redraw the unlawful maps and whether there should be a special election early next year to remedy the violations.
“We cannot identify candidates; candidates cannot step up and run,” said Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake), who is the House Chairman of the Democratic Conference. “We can’t do anything.”
Martin said he is responsible for all things campaign-related, including recruiting good Democratic candidates in all 120 House districts.
At this stage of the game, potential contenders in the next election would be out meeting voters, raising money and organizing campaign strategies. Instead, Martin tells them to “lie low until you know what the districts are.”
The party’s biggest fear is announcing a great political candidate that Republicans could perceive as a threat.
“Just with the swipe of a pen or click of a keyboard, they can draw them into non-competitive districts,” Martin testified.
Similarly, one of the plaintiffs in North Carolina v. Covington, discussed the hardships of his political activism in Durham, one of the affected districts.
“It makes it just impossible for a candidate to assess the lay of the land and run a successful campaign and fund raise,” said Milo Pyne.
Pyne is a Senior Regional Ecologist at NatureServe but volunteers with the Durham People’s Alliance and the Durham Political Action Committee. He is involved in recruiting local political candidates and endorsing them.
He said the lack of districts creates uncertainty and is negatively impacting fundraising. At a fundraiser about two weeks ago, Pyne said “donors seemed unwilling to donate additional funds until these issues are resolved.”
“The party is very anxious to start making these decisions,” he said, adding that the Republicans are already strategizing and fundraising.
‘You don’t seem serious’
It’s no secret that delay has been the name of the game for Republican legislative leaders. They’ve fought every litigation battle involved with redistricting. They arbitrarily fought a request to expedite Thursday’s hearing. They’ve refused to draw anything without further instruction from the court despite a 2016 order instructing them to move forward.
Their tactics were taken to task by two of the three judges Thursday.
“The problem is, the order has been in place since 2016,” said 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge James Wynn. “You had to know this case was going to be affirmed.”
Wynn and U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles, both appointed by former President Barack Obama, frequently cut off attorney Phil Strach, who represents the legislative defendants, asking pointed questions and expressing concern over the lack of action on the new maps.
“What concerns at least me is the seriousness at how this is being taken by the General Assembly,” Wynn said. “This is serious.”
He said there were other similar cases in which courts appointed a special master to get involved in the process and that the panel could do that if necessary.
“We don’t want to do this; we want to stay out of it,” he added. “We want to feel that you’re moving on this.”
Eagles agreed: “You don’t seem serious, so what’s our assurance that you’re serious?”
Strach respectfully disagreed and said lawmakers had already appointed members to each redistricting committee, submitted a timeline to the court and met to discuss strategy and goals.
“Somebody who takes it seriously has a plan to do it right,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing.”
He argued that any shorter of a timeline wouldn’t allow for proper comment from lawmakers involved and the public.
Eagles wasn’t buying his argument.
“But you’ve created those problems by not doing this over the last year,” she said. “That’s the legislature’s fault.”
Wynn wanted to know why the legislature hadn’t already held public hearings or made any other efforts given the small window for the remedial redistricting before the next redistricting process in 2020.
Eagles added that she didn’t understand why legislators needed so much time if the sole purpose of the new maps was to correct the constitutional violations — not to start from scratch and weigh all the benefits and party advantages of redistricting.
Strach said legislators’ timeline allows for an orderly process with maximum public input. If the panel were to compress their timeline any further, he said, it would mean less time for public hearings.
“Well, that’s your own fault,” Eagles responded.
U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder did not raise as many questions as Wynn and Eagles, but pointed out that if the new maps were submitted in mid-November like legislators want, there wouldn’t be much time for the court to review them before candidate filing in February.
The panel does not plan to approve the new maps simply upon submission, and a contingency plan needs to be in place should they correct the constitutional violations, Schroeder said. Since the courts know less about redistricting than lawmakers, they likely need more time.
‘Difficult to call an election’
Certainly nothing has been decided with regard to a special election, but Wynn took a “frank” approach Thursday with the Covington parties.
“It does look difficult to call an election this year,” he said.
Anita Earls, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, argued the opposite. The Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said there are arguments that could be made that the current legislature and its actions are unconstitutional and to not take action would “throw open those challenges.”
“The disruption is in not holding a special election and not drawing new maps,” she said. “This is not just speculation. There are actually parties looking at this type of claim.”
She said lawmakers were not in session, so campaigning would not take them away from their legislative duties and that the state could weather the disruption of a special election.
To prove this, she interviewed George Gilbert, a current Salisbury resident who retired after serving 25 years as the Director of the Guilford County Board of Elections.
Gilbert testified about the key tasks in a special election and said the timeline the plaintiffs proposed — which Earls described as illustrative — would absolutely be possible.
“We do elections with a four-week turnaround commonly,” he said. “We’ve conducted elections in shorter time periods before and I feel confident that they could continue to do that.”
When asked about the financial impact at the local level, Gilbert said a lot of things feel burdensome but when put in perspective, at least for Guilford County, the election budget under his reign never exceeded one-half of one percent of the county budget.