More than a half dozen of North Carolina’s Black legislators are in danger of losing their seats, as Republican legislators decided not to draw election districts to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act as legislatures had in the past.
Republican map-makers said they did not use data on race or partisanship in drawing the maps to avoid getting them overturned in court as racial or political gerrymanders. They refused Democrats’ requests for a study of racially-polarized voting.
Voting rights groups have sued over the decision to not draw Voting Rights Act districts, which are intended to give Black voters the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice.
As a result, two Black state senators representing eastern North Carolina counties, Sen. Toby Fitch, who now represents parts of Wilson, Halifax and Edgecombe counties, and Sen. Ernestine Bazemore, who represents all or parts of six counties from Vance to Beaufort, are now in majority Republican districts, according to information from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. The project gave the state House and Senate redistricting plans “F”s for partisan fairness.
Rep. Bobby Hanig, a member of the legislature’s far-right Freedom Caucus, announced last week that he will be giving up his House seat to run in the redrawn Senate district where Bazemore lives, according to The Daily Advance.
In the House, Rep. Raymond E. Smith Jr. of Goldsboro is now in a Republican district along with Republican Rep. John Bell, the House Majority Leader.
Reps. Howard Hunter III of Ahoskie, Linda Cooper-Suggs of Wilson, and Rep. James Gailliard of Rocky Mount have also been placed in highly competitive districts.
“An era of retrogression”
In most elections, North Carolina voters split about 50-50 between Democratic and Republican candidates, but the new legislative maps would likely allow Republicans to expand their majorities in the state House and Senate.
“We probably are in an era of retrogression,” said Mickey Michaux, a former legislator from Durham who was first encouraged to run for office by The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“It took us a long time and a hard row to plow to get that representation that was sorely needed,” Michaux said. “The representation that comes out of the eastern district, those folks have acted in a fair and descent manner to all the citizens, not just the minority community.”
As the House debated the new districts, Democratic lawmakers described the plans as blatant gerrymanders.
“All of them reek,” said Rep. Kandie Smith, a Greenville Democrat.
“It appears that there’s an attack on the African American vote, but there’s no concern for that,” she said. “It’s important to know that people are supposed to elect us [legislators], and not the other way around.”
Beyond the eastern counties, Sen. Sydney Batch, a Wake Democrat, is in a district that Republicans have a chance of taking back after a Democrat flipped it in 2018.
The legislature could lose Native American and Latino representation, too.
Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat from Lumberton and a member of the Lumbee Tribe, told his colleagues that there’s a chance, under the new map, that the area he represents could break the decades-long tradition of electing an American Indian to the legislature. Graham has announced he is running for Congress.
Republican House members defeated Graham’s proposed change to the district lines. The new House district that would be easy for a Republican candidate to win.
Rep. Ricky Hurtado of Alamance County, a Democrat and the only Latino member of the General Assembly, has also been placed in a district with redrawn lines that would make it harder for him to win a second term.
Although they represent diverse electorates, Black legislators are known to advocate for the state’s historically Black public universities at budget time.
Several Black legislators were members of Gov. Roy Cooper’s Task Force For Racial Equity in Criminal Justice.
Black Republicans can win elections in the state, as Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson has shown. But few Black Republicans have been elected to the legislature in modern times. The last was Pearl Burris-Floyd of Gaston County, who was elected in 2008 and lost a primary in 2010.
Public interest groups for years have tried to convince legislators to stop drawing their own districts and hand the responsibility to an independent group of citizens.
Wilson City Council member Michael Bell said it would be a better way.
“Put it in the hands of citizens – Democrats, Republicans and independent. Allow the districts to reflect the diversity and the demographics of that area,” Bell said.
Discouraging prospective candidates of color
Having fewer Black lawmakers may indirectly curb the ambitions of young Black people who won’t see a path to office, said Moses Carey, a founder of the North Carolina Black Alliance. The alliance serves to connect Black elected officials at city, county, and state levels.
“Many of the people in the Black community would like to see people in leadership roles who look like them,” Carey said. He is a former chairman of the Orange County Board of Commissioners and served in Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration.
“Obviously, when young, upwardly mobile Black people see others in roles” they would like to hold, “they’re motivated by that,” he said.
“When they don’t see them in those leadership roles, that blunts their motivation to serve and belief they can get elected to those particular positions. Drawing districts in a way that makes it less possible for Black folk, young Black folk, to get elected is detrimental to the society in which we live.
“We need a system of developing the districts in a way that is equitable for everybody involved, including for people in communities of color.”
Before legislators draw district lines, they arrange counties into “clusters” to avoid creating districts that cross county lines.
The lawsuit filed by the North Carolina branches of the NAACP and Common Cause last month says legislators had a choice of clusters in northeastern North Carolina for the state Senate map and chose one with the smaller population of Black people of voting age.
“Even without explicating viewing racial data during drafting, any individual with passing familiarity with this area of North Carolina would understand the choice” would “undermine Black voters’ ability to continue electing the candidate of their choice,” the complaint states.