Legal challenge for redrawn 12th District anticipated
By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — State lawmakers may have finished the new legislative district maps last week, but the 2011 redistricting process isn’t over yet.
North Carolina’s redrawn 12th Congressional District, which includes part of Rowan County, is one of the changes that could be challenged in court.
U.S. Rep. Mel Watt, who has represented the district since its creation in 1992, says he expects it will be. He said in early July that Republican leaders have packed minority voters into the same district to minimize their influence.
“African-Americans have influence in my district, and they assert that influence,” Watt said. “I want that African-American input to be concerted in all Congressional districts.”
The new 12th District still stretches from Charlotte to Greensboro, but it is narrower — taking in less of Rowan County — and increases the percentage of blacks from 44 to 50. Watt said he typically gets about 60 percent of the vote in the district as it exists now.
The new boundaries would give him an even greater chance of winning an election, Watt said, but it also would take away minority voting power elsewhere. People tend to support candidates who look like them, he said.
The U.S. Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to protect the polit-ical power of minorities, and it requires states to draw maps that don’t diminish the political influence of black voters. Redistricting leaders said they were following that law when they made the 12th District one of two majority-minority districts in the state. (The other is the 1st District in eastern North Carolina.)
Watt said the law isn’t supposed to ensure minority representation but to make up for racially polarized voting.
“The Voting Rights Act is designed to level the playing field, not to provide a slam dunk to African-American candidates,” Watt said.
But not everyone interprets it that way, said Michael Bitzer, associate professor of politics and history at Catawba College.
“Do you draw districts to the point where it is basically guaranteed that a black candidate is elected, or do you draw it to give them the opportunity to do it?” Bitzer said. “The courts have kind of gone back and forth.”
Republican redistricting leaders contend the maps comply with state and federal laws and court rulings.
Democrats argue the maps create too many majority-black districts when the law doesn’t require it.
Bitzer said this year’s redistricting process has raised an important question about how the Voting Rights Act should be applied in modern politics.
“We have our first black president, but have we truly overcome the legacy of what the United States history has been?” Bitzer said. “We as a country with a legacy of racial politics still struggle with this question.”
The General Assembly redraws legislative districts every 10 years to reflect population growth reported by the U.S. Census, and the Republican party now holds a majority in both chambers for the first time since 1870.
N.C. Sen. Andrew Brock, who represents Rowan and Davie counties and is vice chairman of the redistricting committee, has said the districts comply with the Voting Rights Act.
Brock, a Republican, told the Post in early July that urban areas have grown the fastest in population over the past decade, so districts with urban areas got geographically smaller while more rural districts grew.
The new maps are now law, but next they’ll be presented to a federal court and U.S. attorneys to decide whether they meet anti-discrimination laws before they can be used in the 2012 elections.
Bryant Norman, president of the Salisbury-Rowan Branch of the NAACP, said his organization will be watching closely to see whether a legal challenge is necessary.
“We don’t like them to compact minorities all into one little group,” Norman said.
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The word “gerrymander” comes up often in discussions of the 12th District.
It was first coined to describe a Massachusetts state Senate district redrawn for partisan gain in 1812. The district’s shape was compared to a salamander and named after Elbridge Gerry, the governor who approved the new maps.
Now, the term is used for any oddly-shaped district drawn to give an advantage to a certain political party or other group of people.
Before the U.S. Supreme Court approved the current boundaries of the 12th District, which Bitzer says resembles more of a sea monster, it was the focus of years of litigation.
When North Carolina legislators drew the 1992 map of the 12th District, it threaded 160 miles from Gastonia to Durham, weaving Statesville, Salisbury, High Point and Winston-Salem into its narrow path.
“What do people in Gastonia have in common with people in Winston-Salem, Salisbury or Durham?” Bitzer said. “That is obvious racial gerrymandering, and the courts would not support that.”
The map was struck down in 1993 by the United States District Court.
It was redrawn in 1997 to make the district more compact, starting in Charlotte and ending in Greensboro.
Legislators argued that they drew it based on politics, not race, and the new map passed legal muster.
Because black voters are highly likely to be Democrats, Bitzer said, it can be hard to tell whether race is a primary consideration in redistricting.
“Until we can get to the point of separating politics out of all this,” he said, “we’re still going to have gerrymandering.”