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Nash commissioners to work on redistricting

Posted on September 12, 2021

Updated on September 13, 2021

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The Claude Mayo Jr. Administration Building is shown in a Nash County government photo.

Contributed photo

The Claude Mayo Jr. Administration Building is shown in a Nash County government photo.

kripley@springhopeenterprise.com

NASHVILLE — Nash County commissioners have gotten their first look at redistricting and expect to begin work on new maps in a Sept. 20 work session.

Craig Schauer and Amanda Hawkins with the Brooks Pierce law firm briefed the county board on redistricting procedures and law during its Sept. 7 meeting. They also asked commissioners to identify any “priorities and concerns” for the firm to consider in drawing new maps.

“We have had zero discussions on this thus far,” said board Chairman Robbie Davis.

Hawkins said the firm’s demographer received the 2020 census data on Aug. 16 and is now working on draft maps for the board to review on Sept. 20.

“He’ll create a draft map from which we can start and work for there,” she said. “We can absolutely change things and make whatever changes you all need, but we have to be done by Nov. 17,” the date by when the board must adopt new districts.

Nash County is divided into seven political districts. The district boundaries are reviewed and revised after each census, conducted every 10 years. The population within each district must have “substantial equity,” Hawkins said. The districts can remain the same only if their populations vary by less than 5%, according to state courts, or 10% according to federal courts.

“If you satisfy the 5% rule, you’re going to satisfy the 10% rule,” Hawkins told commissioners. “The demographer will do all these calculations and let us know if there is substantial inequality.”

She said North Carolina had adopted the “one person, one vote” principle for its redistricting decisions and “you want to have districts as substantially equal as possible.”

Hawkins said North Carolina no longer needs to have new districts preapproved under the Voting Rights Act, but said the board cannot consider race when drawing new lines except to comply with federal law.

Under the law, she said, new districts cannot dilute minorities’ voting power.

Two of the county’s districts are considered minority districts based on their demographics, and Schauer said he expected there would probably still be two minority districts after redistricting.

“Is there any reason we would change one of these districts?” Davis asked.

“The primary reason for moving any lines would be population growth,” Schauer replied. “We’re going to be advising the commissioners to follow federal law.”

“Redistricting is going to be partisan across the country, with lawsuits and angry people hating each other,” commented Commissioner Fred Belfield. “We just need to do the right thing in the beginning. I certainly hope that here in Nash County we can avoid all of that by doing the right thing in the beginning.”

“Well said,” Davis responded. “I wouldn’t expect anything less of this board than what you just described.”

“Our goal is to draw a map that is not going to invite litigation for the county of Nash,” Schauer said.

The board can draw lines to avoid having incumbent members in the same district. Davis asked whether the county could consider potential candidates’ residency, and Schauer responded, “The typical rule is incumbents can be considered, but I’m not sure that commissioners can consider candidates who might run.”

“I’d be totally against that,” asserted commissioner Marvin Arrington. “Incumbency, yes, but not hopes that somebody might run.”

Nash commissioners have not engaged in political gerrymandering in the past and didn’t indicate an interest in doing so this time. The Supreme Court has said political gerrymandering is constitutional, but North Carolina courts have twice struck down maps for political gerrymandering under the state constitution.

“We recommend against political gerrymandering,” Schauer said.

Other factors the county can consider are the districts’ compactness and contiguity as well as retaining existing districts.

“I really think the population equality is what’s important to me more than anything else,” said Commissioner Gwen Wilkins. “I don’t want people of color left out or misrepresented.”

Davis asked if the Sept. 20 session would be open to the public. He also asked whether commissioners wanted the chance to speak privately with the lawyers. Only Belfield said he wanted a private conversation, but he and all the other commissioners said that everything would be shared with the full board.

“I don’t see a need,” Wilkins said. “What I have to say I can say in front of everybody.”

As far as the work session and general process being open to the public, County Manager Zee Lamb said, “I’m not sure, but I think that’s a good policy.”

“Our overarching guidance in when we work with boards is there is value in transparency,” Schauer told commissioners. “We believe that a transparent process that is more open is less likely to invite suspicion and potential litigation down the road, so all the boards we have been working with, we have been doing it through open meetings and in public.”

Davis indicated he agreed with the open policy. He also said he reviewed the districts with the data he received and believed there would be fewer changes than people expect.

“It’s not changed as much as I would have thought,” he said. “You’re going to have some work, but it’s not what I expected.”

Though Republicans hold a 4-3 majority on the board, Davis and commissioners have generally emphasized bipartisanship over political differences.

“I want everybody on this board to feel we did it as fair as we can do it,” he said. “If this board agrees we did it fair, there’s a good chance the public will believe it is fair.”

“We want to make it as fair as we can and not leave any room for challenges,” he added.

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