- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 16, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Attorneys for two voters who challenged two North Carolina voting districts urged the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to prevent the state from holding elections with the current congressional district map, saying the public shouldn’t be subjected further to voting under racial gerrymanders.

The voters’ attorneys met a mid-afternoon deadline to respond to an emergency request by lawyers for the state to let U.S. House primary elections go on March 15 as scheduled under the current boundaries. The state’s lawyers argue that postponing the primary would cause too much disruption to an election where nearly 17,000 registered voters have already requested absentee ballots.

But the plaintiffs’ lawyers said the “administrative inconvenience” and cost of holding separate congressional elections later in the year under a lawful map are outweighed by what they see as the damage to the entire state by unlawfully creating the majority black 1st and 12th Districts. Those district boundaries had already been used in 2012 and 2014.

The plaintiffs contend that packing blacks into two districts diminished minority voter influence in other districts. The U.S. Voting Rights Act protects minorities from having their voting strength diluted.

“The state’s improper use of race to sort voters by the color of their skin has violated the 14th Amendment rights of millions of North Carolina citizens,” Washington attorney Marc Elias wrote on behalf of the voters David Harris and Christine Bowers. Waiting to make any required changes until the 2018 elections, as mapmakers want, is wrong, Elias wrote.

At issue is a Feb. 5 lower-court decision that the 1st and 12th Districts as drawn by Republican legislators in 2011 are illegal because lawmakers improperly used race predominantly to determine the districts’ shape and voting populations. The three-judge panel halted congressional elections under the approved map and told lawmakers to come up with new boundaries by this Friday.

The state’s request for a stay and Tuesday’s response went to Chief Justice John Roberts, who receives North Carolina emergency appeals for the court. Roberts can rule unilaterally or bring in the remaining justices. The uncertainty increased with last Saturday’s death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia.

As a safeguard, lawmakers created a special redistricting committee to draw district boundaries if the court refuses to issue a stay. After public hearings Monday, the Republican-controlled committee Tuesday developed the criteria it would use in drawing new boundaries. The committee will meet again Wednesday, and Gov. Pat McCrory could be asked to call the full General Assembly in on Thursday to debate and vote on a new proposal.

By a party-line vote, the Republican-led committee decided it would not use any racial data in drawing new lines.

The three judges said there was no evidence presented to them of racially polarized voting in the 1st District, which covers all or parts of 24 counties from Durham to Elizabeth City and New Bern, to justify its majority black status. Two of the three judges also said the mapmakers used race too much in the 12th District, which takes in parts of Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro, largely linked along Interstate 85.

GOP lawmakers argue political advantage in the 12th and avoidance of legal challenges in the 1st were the primary reasons for creating the majority black districts, not race.

The judges “offered no guidance into how much minority population should be used,” said Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, the committee co-chairman. “So I simply say we draw the maps without using any racial considerations.”

Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue, D-Wake, said the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act still demand protections for black voters. However, Democrats argue the districts’ black populations don’t need to be above 50 percent because the districts have been electing black lawmakers for 20 years.

“I don’t think it’s wise to spit in the eyes of three federal judges that control the fate of where we’re going to go with restricting,” Blue said. Otherwise, he added, “these three gentlemen are going to draw those maps for you.”

The committee also agreed along party lines that it will make “reasonable efforts” to construct districts to reflect the Republicans’ current 10-3 advantage over Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation. Partisan gerrymandering is lawful.

The committee gave bipartisan support to adjust the “serpentine” 12th District into something more compact. Republicans had kept the district’s winding shape in place in because it had been formed based on litigation since the 1990s.

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This story has been corrected to show that the attorney’s name is Marc Elias.

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