- Associated Press - Friday, August 25, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - In drawing new boundaries for General Assembly districts, North Carolina Republicans keep defending their decision to ignore racial data to ensure that they’re complying with a federal court ruling that found sections of the maps from six years ago were illegally race-based.

Despite Democrats’ warnings that such an approach will ultimately cede remapping duties to judges, GOP lawmakers voted Friday in the Senate to give tentative approval to their chamber’s proposed remap. A House committee also approved proposed House districts. The voting, which resumes Monday, marked key steps in approving maps prior to a three-judge panel’s deadline next Friday.

Over Democratic objections, Republicans last week approved criteria for redrawing new lines that purposefully left out the racial composition of voters. This decision came after the judges threw out 19 House and nine Senate districts from the 2011 maps as illegal racial gerrymanders.

Democrats, who voted against the maps Friday, cautioned that judges may strike down these sets of maps, too, because Republicans won’t be able to explain how some districts still contain majority-black populations.

If the judges reject the new maps, which would take effect for the 2018 elections, they could decide to redraw the maps themselves or send the job to an outside expert.

“The court says that we have discriminatory districts,” Senate Minority Leader Dan Blue of Wake County, said during floor debate on the Senate maps. “It just is anti-intuitive that you can fix a problem without addressing the problem … and it might be that you’re sending a message to this three-judge panel that you don’t take judicial orders very seriously.”

The chairman of the Senate redistricting committee said Republicans are respecting and responding to the judges’ ruling.

“We have a solution for that. We will not use race in the creation of districts,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican, before the Senate approved the GOP plan in a 27-16 vote. “We have answered the court’s questions with these maps and we are prepared to move forward now with elections under these maps … (but) I don’t think anybody thinks the legal fight is over.”

Almost all of the 28 maps that were tossed had majority-black populations. While Republicans point out it led to a record number of black legislators being elected in North Carolina, critics say the power of black voters actually decreased because Republicans won more surrounding districts that contained more white voters. Republicans currently hold veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate.

Senate and House Democrats offered alternative maps, some of which were drawn by attorneys for the voters who successfully sued to strike down the 2011 districts. Democrats said these plans ensured that racial gerrymanders are adequately addressed.

Republicans who voted against the plans called the boundaries an effort to erode current GOP majorities and place more pairs of Republican incumbents into the same district. “Clearly to me this is a political document,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar of Wake County, a House redistricting committee chairman.

But House Democrats said the GOP strategy, which did allow incumbency protection and partisanship to be considered, was misguided. Recent statewide election results attached to the Republican maps indicate they could retain their current supermajorities under the plans.

“Your solution of completely ignoring race violated the Voting Rights Act,” House Minority Leader Darren Jackson of Wake County said.

Four House districts would contain a majority black voting-age population under the GOP plan, according to data provided by Democrats, compared to 23 districts in the 2011 maps. In the Senate, the number would fall from nine in 2011 to one. Many majority-black districts were eliminated, according to Blue, through legal requirements designed to minimize district boundaries crossing county lines.

Two Senate Republicans voted against the proposed Senate map Friday. One was Sen. Deanna Ballard of Watauga County, who would be placed in the same district with another incumbent. The other was first-term GOP Sen. Rick Horner of Wilson County, whose proposed district is strongly Democratic.

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