Politics & Government

Democrats, Republicans both accused of violating court order as they redraw district maps

Outside legal groups are accusing both Democrats and Republicans of breaking the rules as North Carolina lawmakers go about redrawing political maps that were recently ruled unconstitutional.

Lawyers for Common Cause, which won the recent lawsuit forcing this new redistricting session, say Senate Republicans violated a court order by ordering members of the media and the public to stay out of the area where senators and staff are drawing maps.

And lawyers for at least two different conservative-leaning groups say Democrats might be in violation of the same court order, pointing to a statement from a Democratic lawmaker that appeared to reference secret map-making meetings.

Both parties say the accusations against them are false.

Last week, when a three-judge panel overturned the maps used to elect members of the state legislature, the judges let the legislature remain in charge of drawing the new maps. They’re currently rushing to finish up by the court-imposed deadline next Wednesday, Sept. 18.

The judges ordered lawmakers to work under stricter rules, with more transparency than usual and no reliance on political data.

Secret Democrat maps?

Wednesday morning, Republican House lawmakers took a vote that surprised many Democrats — most of whom were not in the chamber to vote — to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget.

Democrats were outraged, and one of the few who were present for the vote was Rep. Deb Butler of Wilmington. She gave a speech angrily deriding the budget vote, and at one point made an aside that some saw as an accidental admission that Democrats have been drawing maps in secret, which might violate the court order.

About five minutes into her speech, Republican Rep. Kelly Hastings interrupted Butler to ask for permission to speak about integrity. Butler had briefly stopped speaking, until Hastings mentioned integrity.

“We have been tricked, and you are trying to usurp the will of the North Carolina voter,” Butler said. “How dare you? We’re downstairs right now trying to redraw partisan-heavy maps because of your thumb on the scale. The court has ordered that you will redraw these maps, and that’s the way you feel like you’re going to behave in here?”

Butler said later that she thinks it’s clear she was talking about the public process, and not anything secret, since she referenced having to redraw Republicans’ “partisan-heavy” maps.

Many Republicans focused on her use of the word “downstairs,” since there is nowhere downstairs in the legislative building where maps should be discussed or drawn. Butler said she simply misspoke and really meant “across the street,” in the offices where the redistricting meetings are being held.

“That’s the death rattle out of those guys, trying to figure out somehow to point the finger at us,” Butler said in an interview.

Republicans didn’t necessarily buy her explanation.

The conservative Raleigh think tank Civitas Institute sent a formal request to Democratic leaders asking for those maps and anything related to them. So did a newly re-formed conservative legal group, the North Carolina Institute for Constitutional Law.

Jeanette Doran, the executive director of the NCICL, said it would be deeply concerning if records showed the Democrats had indeed been drawing their own maps in secret.

“Even if it isn’t a crystal clear violation of the letter of the order, and I think it is, it is most definitely a violation of the spirit of the order,” she said in an interview Wednesday.

Rep. Darren Jackson, the top Democrat in the House, said they had nothing to show since such maps do not exist. He added that Democrats couldn’t draw secret maps, even if they wanted to, because they don’t have access to a computer with the right software.

Republican violations?

Wednesday afternoon, as members of the Senate redistricting committee worked on new maps, members of the media and the public could walk among the various groups of lawmakers and staffers doing the work.

People could take photos, listen to conversations and get an up-close view of the redistricting process.

But a few hours later, as the committee continued working into the night, Republican Sen. Ralph Hise shut down that close-up public access.

“As a result of Sen. Hise’s order removing citizens and journalists from the map-drawing area, members of the committee were sitting at computers and amending maps without the public able to know how or why legislators were making changes to proposed districts,” Common Cause deputy director Brent Laurenz said in a press release.

The proceedings are still being live-streamed online for anyone to watch. And Hise never ordered anyone out of the room, just the central area where the action was. The complaint, however, revolves around the fact that the lawmakers frequently huddled in multiple groups at once and sometimes spoke in hushed tones — leaving the public not necessarily able to hear if lawmakers were improperly discussing partisan data while drawing the maps.

Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Republican Senate leader Phil Berger, said the decision to restrict the public to certain areas of the room does not violate the court order. He also said it was also a joint decision made by Hise and Democratic Senate leader Dan Blue.

“The computer screens are available for everybody in the world via live stream, they’re on multiple projectors in the committee room, and the public has the same access to this hearing room as for every other,” said Ryan and Blue’s spokeswoman, Leslie Rudd, in a joint statement. “We will continue to work with all sides in good faith to enact legally compliant maps and finally bring this matter to an end.”

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.