County, city redistricting coming into focus – The Rant

By Richard Sullins | richard@rantnc.com

Lee County commissioners got their first look at several possible maps of new electoral districts at their meeting Wednesday night, and while new boundaries proposed by county staff suggested minimal changes, discussion by members of the board indicated that questions about racial data my play a role in any final decision.

The 2020 Census determined that Lee County’s population was 63,285. Dividing that number by the four commission districts provides an ideal district population of 15,821.25. Following the constitutional tenet of one person, one vote, the districts must be reviewed each decade following the Census to see whether redistricting is needed so that every person is represented equally. The U.S. Department of Justice guidelines say that a district may be above or below that ideal number by no more that five percent, and Lee County’s Districts 1 and 3 both exceed that deviation standard.

Sanford and Lee County GIS Strategic Services Director Don Kovasckitz presented four possible versions of maps that the commissioners could adopt for the next 10 years. Kovasckitz reminded the commissioners that even though portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Act were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the remaining provisions are still in effect.

That commenced a discussion Wednesday night about what constitutes a majority-minority district and whether one should be kept. The county has had such a district (District 1, represented by Democrat Robert Reives Sr.), where most voters are in groups considered to be minorities, since 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 found this provision of the Act unconstitutional, and in the absence of a requirement to have a majority-minority district, doubts seem to have been created in the minds of some commissioners as to whether they needed to continue having one.

Kovasckitz reminded commissioners that even though Section 5 of the Act no longer applies, they are still bound to follow Section 2, which prohibits voting practices or procedures which discriminate on the basis of race, color, or language groups.

Commissioner Bill Carver, a Republican, asked “what constitutes the way you decide whether we are meeting the requirements of Section 2?”

“We need to decide how much we should use race in redistricting now, and whether we must use race in redistricting,” Kovasckitz responded. “We are no longer under Section 5, but prior litigation tells us that tracking that data is a good idea.”

County Attorney Whitney Parrish sought to bring clarity to the issue by saying “if you are looking for a hard and fast rule (about requirements for having a minority district), you’re not going to find one. This is the first time we have gone through the redistricting process since having to seek the pre-clearance of the Department of Justice. But given our previous involvement with the department and the litigation and tracking involved, it seems that tracking racial groups is something that we should do, even though it’s not the predominant factor that we will be considering.”

Republican Commissioner Arianna Lavallee went back to a political battle fought and settled last year when she questioned Kovasckitz about who was actually included in the Census count.

“For the population, are we counting non-citizens,” she asked, “or just US citizens?”

Kovasckitz replied that “we are counting everyone that was counted in the Census. There was nothing in the Census questionnaire that I know of that asked whether you were a citizen or not.”

The Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that an attempt by the Trump administration to add a citizenship question to the Census violated federal law.

Kovasckitz presented four plans for the commissioners to consider and each of them maintains the county’s tradition of having a majority-minority political district. Plan A is the least disruptive of any of the proposals, bringing equality to districts by simply moving small numbers of people from one district to another. Plan B makes the districts slightly more compact and would move all of Carolina Trace, which is currently split between Districts 2 and 3, into District 2 entirely. Plan C makes things even more compact, and Plan D provides a vision of the most compact districts of all. View the current districts by clicking here.

Like the city of Sanford, commissioners will have much to consider as they deliberate on what the new maps will look like. They may wish to keep the boundaries as natural as possible to reduce confusion. They will have to consider new growth and where it is most likely to happen, and as voters are moved around across the board, they will have to consider their own political futures as well.

The board set September 20 for a public discussion of the issue, October 4 for a public hearing, and October 18 for adoption of the plan.

Meanwhile, the Sanford City Council plans to continue a public hearing on its own redistricting process on Sept. 21 with plans to finalize the new city electoral maps the same day.

The city’s process involved far less discussion than the county’s – no one was present at a city council public hearing on Tuesday, Sept. 7, and Mayor Pro Tempore Byron Buckels even expressed concern that not enough city residents were aware of the proposed changes.

Kovasckitz at the council meeting on Tuesday gave a presentation about the range of options with regards to redrawing city electoral maps.

With the total population of the city being 30,239, dividing that number by the five wards within the city gives an ideal number of persons within each district as being 6,047.8. Kovasckitz said that he tried to take into account areas in the city that are now experiencing rapid growth in his projections, such as the section between Highway 87 and Commerce Drive that has recently seen many new apartments and much housing construction.

Council members reached a consensus that it would consider Plans A and C at the September 21 meeting. Plan A is the most like the current ward plan (view here) and has the advantage of drawing the political boundaries along the natural ones of major highways and roads, such as Horner Boulevard and U.S. 421. While Plan C is more disruptive as to where the current political boundaries would be located, it is also more concise and compact, shifting primarily the boundaries in Wards 3 and 5. Plan B was considered as being too similar to Plan A.

Both plans would ensure that the city will continue to have three districts where most citizens are members of minority groups. They have been reviewed by an outside legal counsel for compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and found to be in compliance with its provisions.

Councilman Charles Taylor asked whether any of the proposed changes might result in gerrymandering, a practice where incumbents draw political boundaries to gain an unfair advantage that keeps a person or party in office. Kovasckitz responded that the new maps allowed wards to be drawn more compactly than decades previously because Sanford and other cities were no longer required to get pre-clearance federal Justice Department. City Attorney Susan Patterson added to the discussion that “after outside review, I think this Council can be confident that there is no partisan gerrymandering in the maps that Mr. Kovasckitz has prepared.”

The City Council’s September 21 meeting will be held at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center.

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