Buncombe County – The Buncombe County Commissioners are exploring options for redrawing voting districts, an act that would require changes to state legislation. The move was described in a county press release as “better aligning” the districts with county demographics. At their last formal meeting, the commissioners approved contracting with Poyner Spruill to facilitate a demographic study and prepare a resolution mapping the firm’s recommendations for redistricting.
In North Carolina, state district lines are redrawn after every Census. The new state redistricting is being challenged in court, as was the last. Buncombe County is concerned about the outcome of the litigation because, Chair Brownie Newman explained, it is the only county in the state that elects its commissioners by districts aligned with those of the state House of Representatives. One objective of contracting with Poyner Spruill would be for them to inform the1courts of Buncombe’s entanglement in this otherwise state-level issue. (The other counties redraw district lines whenever the population of one county changes 5% or more.)
Now that the county has signed the paperwork, Poyner Spruill will contract with Blake Esselstyn, principal of Mapfigure, for a demographic study. Esselstyn worked for the City of Asheville’s planning department for over a decade before going into business as a geographer, demographer, and redistricting consultant. Esselstyn will work independently, analyzing Census data, while Poyner Spruill will provide legal advice on the proposed districts. Poyner Spruill further agreed, by way of separate terms of engagement, to litigate on the county’s behalf in pertinent matters.
Poyner Spruill spelled out the firm’s scope of representation as, “in potential involvement in the consolidated cases of Harper v. Hall, NC League of Conservation Voters v. Hall, and Common Cause v. Berger,” which would include the preparation of the amicus brief. The third suit is properly referred to as the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP v. Berger and claims the redistricting maps failed to take into consideration adequate racial data. The lead attorneys at Poyner Spruill, Eddie Speas and Caroline Mackie, will bill the county at a considerably discounted $400/hour, and Esselstyn will charge $250/hour.
Commissioner Robert Pressley, the only Republican on the board, suggested imposing a time limit on the representation contract, and he was assured by both Newman and County Attorney Michael Frue that things were moving along at a good clip. Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein had, after all, filed an amicus brief December 6 that urged the North Carolina Supreme Court to quickly decide two of the cases, in which plaintiffs describe the proposed redistricting as, “unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders.” The litigation had already caused the North Carolina Supreme Court to postpone the upcoming March primaries until May. Cooper and Stein did not want them pushed back further.
Stein brought up the old adage that, in a democracy, people elect their leaders, not the other way around. The brief argues that gerrymandering in North Carolina was never fully litigated, and an injunction is needed to prevent it from continually rearing its head long enough to serve its purpose and then being withdrawn by litigants. It argues the current gerrymander would be sufficient to, against the popular will, entrench one party in power for an entire decade. It claimed the gerrymander was further un-Constitutional because it created a veto-proof supermajority that could prevent the executive from filling judicial vacancies, and had enough power to even amend the state constitution to deprive the governor of heretofore authorized powers or just plain impeach the governor and judges. Cooper was more colorful, saying, “Voters are stripped of their voices by technologically diabolical and unconstitutionally partisan districts.”
In their defense, Republicans said they had been operating under a directive from the legislature to keep cities whole. Since urbanites tend to lean more Democrat, the consolidation of Democrat votes was not intentional, but a side effect of following the rules. They further charged the plaintiffs were cherry-picking their data. This was challenged by analysts who estimated the maps would, overall, give Republican candidates a 10-4 advantage through 2030.
In Buncombe County, which has three districts, the most notable change in the challenged redistricting would be District 3, represented by Pressley and Parker Sloan. Rather than occupying the southwestern quadrant, District 3 would now take in rural areas in the entire western portion of the state. Because it would sacrifice parts of Asheville, District 3 would likely elect two Republican commissioners and a Republican state representative. The partisan probabilities of the other two districts would remain the same, although incumbents Al Whitesides (District 1) and Amanda Edwards (District 2) would be double-bunked. Currently, all state house representatives and all but one county commissioner are Democrats.
Two days after the commissioners approved the contracts with Poyner Spruill, a four-day trial on the maps, held before the North Carolina Superior Court, drew to a close, with judges saying they would probably announce the verdict the following Tuesday. The judges could remand the maps to the legislature for a redraw, which would not be likely as those in power are pushing for an expeditious resolution; they could appoint an independent authority to draw the maps; or they could rule in favor of the Republicans’ maps. Regardless, analysts are expecting the decision to be appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Last month, the Supreme Court ordered the trial as well as an expedited appeals process.