‘Racial’ Boundaries

Published 9:43 am Friday, June 9, 2017

RALEIGH – Howard Hunter III has several opinions in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold a lower court’s decision that found that 28 of North Carolina’s state legislative districts are racial gerrymanders.

Included in those gerrymandered areas is the 5th NC House District, which comprises all of Bertie, Gates and Hertford counties, and a small portion of Pasquotank County.

Hunter, an Ahoskie Democrat and former Hertford County Commissioner, is currently in the middle of his second term as the 5th District Representative. He’s unsure of what will now unfold as far as the boundaries of the area he represents, as well as if a special election will be held later this year or wait until 2018.

“In my humble opinion, I do not believe the 5th District is racially gerrymandered,” Hunter said Tuesday morning before entering the General Assembly Building in Raleigh for another day of work.

“The only thing that the Courts may possibly interpret as gerrymandering is the small area in Elizabeth City that is in my district,” Hunter noted. “That area was added several years ago, well before I took office.”

Prior to that, the 5th District was comprised of all of Bertie, Gates, Hertford and Perquimans counties. At one time, Northampton County was part of the 5th District.

“I do not like breaking up counties in different legislative districts,” Hunter added. “It makes it tougher on those citizens to know exactly who represents them and who they need to contact.”

As to what the future holds in the election process, Hunter said from what he understands from the Supreme Court ruling, the decision to hold a special election this year will be made by a lower court.

“Holding an election between now and the end of this year will be tough to pull off,” stated Hunter, whose normal two-year term is part of the 2018 election cycle. “It’s already June, making it ridiculous to think there’s time to have all these districts redrawn, open a filing period and hold a special election in less than six months.

“We’re now in the middle of our normal election cycle; I would say let’s just wait until our current two-year term is over and hold the election, as normal, in 2018,” Hunter continued.

He added that when the plans are made to redraw the boundaries of all 28 districts as mentioned by the Supreme Count, that task needs to be performed without regard to political party.

“Over the years, both parties, when they are in power, have swayed the decision-making process as it pertains to legislative districts,” Hunter stressed. “What we need moving forward is a non-partisan person or group in charge of that.”

Over the past 50 years, the 5th District NC House seat has been held by members of both races (all Democrats) as follows:

Phillip Godwin (1967-1971)

Robert Jernigan (1971-1981)

C. Melvin Creecy (1981-1987)

Brewster Brown (1987-1989)

Howard Hunter Jr. (1980-2007)

Annie Mobley (2007-2015)

Howard Hunter, III (2015 – present)

The ruling by the Supreme Court does not impact NC House District 27 (Halifax and Northampton counties) – a seat currently held by Michael Wray, a Democrat from Gaston – or NC Senate District 3 (Bertie, Chowan, Edgecombe, Hertford, Martin, Northampton, Tyrrell, and Washington counties) – now represented by Erica Smith-Ingram, a Democrat from Gaston.

In its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court summarily affirmed the merits in Covington v. North Carolina, upholding a lower court’s decision that found that 28 of North Carolina’s state legislative districts are racial gerrymanders.

The decision was issued “per curiam” – meaning by a unanimous decision of the Court. The ruling came two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court found two of the state’s U.S. Congressional districts were also racial gerrymanders.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has finally and emphatically confirmed what we’ve known for years – that many of North Carolina’s state legislative districts are unconstitutional racial gerrymanders.  The order reaffirms that our clients, and the voters of this state, are entitled to have fair legislative districts that do not discriminate against voters based on their race,” said Anita Earls, Executive Director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Earls noted that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay in January, which did not affect the merits of the lower court’s decision, but delayed its remedy calling for a special election in 2017. The stay is now lifted, and the order has been sent back to North Carolina’s Middle District Court to re-establish timelines for drawing new districts and holding state legislative elections.

“The court previously called for holding elections later this year in newly drawn districts. We think there is still time to implement special elections in the impacted districts, and we will do everything we can to make sure that happens,” added Earls.  “Many North Carolinians have been participating in unfair elections in racially gerrymandered districts for far too long.  It’s time to fix this problem.”

However, the leader of the North Carolina Republican Party noted that the problem might be elsewhere.

“The Supreme Court affirmed what we already knew, that the 4th Circuit needs better judges,” said NCGOP Chairman Robin Hayes. “Holding special off-year elections would have disenfranchised millions of voters who cast votes in November of 2016. Approximately 4.5 million citizens cast votes for the General Assembly in 2016. The special election would have thrown those votes into the garbage can and replaced them with maybe 10 percent of that total.

“While we still contend that the North Carolina General Assembly drew fair and legal legislative maps that followed all precedent and court direction available at the time the maps were drawn, the cavalier way that the 4th Circuit ordered a new election, discounting millions of votes, was an affront to democracy. We are glad the Supreme Court obliterated this partisan ruling, which would have allowed Democrats to deceitfully seize elections they did not win at the ballot box,” Hayes concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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