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Challenge to N.C. Board of Ed. Redistricting Advances

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on May 28, 2015 3:54 PM

Citizens of Wake County will be able to go ahead in their challenge to North Carolina's gerrymandered Board of Education election districts, following a ruling by the Fourth Circuit yesterday.

After a regular, time-based redistricting saw the County school board elections swept by a Democratic majority, the state's Republican legislature redrew the voting map, resulting in sizable population differences between districts, each of which elect a single board member. Thirteen Wake County citizens sued, arguing that the gerrymandering violated the principle of "one person, one vote."

A Quick Lesson in Gerrymandering

State law requires school board redistricting every decade, following the national census. Following the 2010 census, the Board of Education election districts were redrawn, more or less evenly, by a Republican-dominated board.

That redistricting didn't last long. Following a sweep of Democratic candidates in the next election, the state legislature redrew the Board of Education districts again, moving from nine districts to seven, with much higher population differences between districts. They also created two "super districts" with one at large seat representing the outer rural areas and one representing the "inner, urban" areas.

Plaintiffs alleged that more densely populated districts would have their votes diluted by under-populated districts. That, they argue, violated their state constitutional and Fourth Amendment rights to equal representation. The district court, however, found the claim to be non-justiciable political question claims and dismissed the case.

Very Much Justiciable

In allowing the case to move forward, the Fourth Circuit repeatedly quoted from Bush v. Gore, perhaps an ironic choice given the widespread view that it's one of the Supreme Court's Worst Cases Ever. Under Bush, once equal voting terms are granted, the state cannot, "by later arbitrary and disparate treatment," value some votes more than others.

While mathematical exactness is not required, governments must attempt to value votes equally by constructing districts with as close to equal populations as is practicable. The fact that the state legislature so quickly changed the board districts from relatively equally distributed, to much more lopsided, shows that their actions may have arbitrarily lead to certain votes being privileged over others.

The Fourth's decision is particularly important given the related cases under other court's jurisdictions. North Carolina's Supreme Court will hear, this August, a challenge to the state legislature's 2011 redistricting of election districts. The Supreme Court, too, will examine the meaning of "one person, one vote" in its next term. Expect both courts to take note of the Fourth's ruling in this case.

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