Carved-up N. Carolina county braces for redistricting fight

AP News
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Posted: Feb 14, 2016 11:09 AM

DURHAM, N.C. (AP) — Mary Hodgin lives in North Carolina's 1st Congressional District. Her neighbors across the street do not.

In fact, Hodgin didn't live in this district until a few years ago — even though she's been in the same Durham home for 25 years. The change came when Republican lawmakers drew the dividing line right down the mile-long stretch of Alston Avenue in front of her house. And, with the March 15 primary just weeks away, a court fight could change the boundaries again.

"It's very concerning as a voter who tries to stay abreast of the issues," she said. "Worst-case scenario, it would put voters off from participating in any election."

Durham County had been part of a single congressional district for more than a decade until legislative mapmakers carved out chunks and added them to other territories before the 2012 elections. A color-coded map by state legislators makes the 1st District look like a yellow fist reaching in to scoop up downtown Durham and the surrounding neighborhoods. The county is now divided among four congressional districts.

The mapmakers traced highways, a river and the county line where they could, but they wound up using residential Durham County roads more than a dozen times. While districts on both sides of Hodgin's street elected Democratic congressmen, neighbors elsewhere live across a greater divide. To the northeast, voters on one side of Olive Branch Road helped elect a Democrat, while the district across the street chose a Republican. The same is true along a stretch of Cole Mill Road in the western part of the county.

The 1st Congressional District was one of two struck down this month by a federal court, which also demanded new boundaries by Friday. The state's GOP leaders have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene so the current map can remain for now — avoiding confusion that could ripple beyond the two districts found to be illegally race-based.

North Carolina's GOP legislative leaders and their attorneys say the 12th District, which is west of Durham County, was adjusted primarily to give political advantages to Republicans. The 1st District, they say, was drawn to avoid legal challenges under the federal Voting Rights Act.

"They say that race was the predominant factor in drawing the districts. We know that not to have been the case," said Republican state Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, who helped draw the current boundaries.

The high court's decision may not come until late in the week, so state lawmakers are scrambling to prepare a new map. New boundaries could be voted on by the General Assembly on Thursday if the deadline imposed by the federal court isn't overturned, House Speaker Tim Moore said.

While many in heavily Democratic Durham County have called for changes to the map, they're now left wondering if they want it badly enough to throw their ballots into chaos.

Still, concerns about finding the correct poll location or a familiar candidate on the ballot aren't new. For years, Democratic U.S. Rep. David Price represented all of Durham County until the district once bounded by several right angles trickled south like melted ice cream dripping off a park bench. Since the redistricting, Rep. G.K. Butterfield, also a Democrat, has represented the heart of Durham County along with others to the east.

"One time I voted for Price, and the next time he wasn't there. It was Butterfield. I think that could have been a tactic to confuse voters," said Alta Lindsay, who recently moved from Durham to nearby Orange County.

While she's back in Price's territory, she's worried it could change again.

"I just don't see how they are going to educate voters," she said. "You could be considering one candidate, but then they redraw the lines."

Late last week, legislative leaders invited the public to discuss redistricting at meetings on Monday in six locations — though none in Durham County.

Lindsay, who's considering retirement after losing a job in the pharmaceutical industry, says the boundaries need to be changed.

"I do think the lines need to be redrawn because it was an effort by Republicans to get what they want," said Lindsay, who is black. "Small portions of African-Americans or Latinos end up in Republican districts."

Durham County Democratic activists argue that lawmakers diluted the area's Democratic base by putting chunks in Republican-leaning territories.

Cathy Moore, past president of Durham Democratic Women, says the current map has already sown plenty of confusion and discouraged voters.

"People say they'd rather not vote than vote and make the wrong choice," she said. "If it's too complicated to figure out, they stay home."

Still, she said her group wants the districts redrawn as soon as possible.

"There's always some kind of stalling tactic or hoop to jump through," she said.

Back along Alston Avenue, 26-year-old Valerie Bass moved into a house in the 4th District back in May, one block east of the dividing line.

Lying south of downtown, the neighborhood consists of mostly one-story houses on small, tidy lots shaded by tall pines. Census data indicates the neighborhood is mostly middle-class, with roughly equal proportions of whites and blacks. The Census tract has a poverty rate around 17 percent — similar to the statewide rate.

Holding a 12-page voter guide from state elections officials, Bass joked that the pamphlet mailed out a few days ago could soon be out of date. It lists key dates, voting procedures and changes in voting laws.

"It's a whole pamphlet of changes that have already taken place, and here's another thing that could change," she said.

The registered Democrat who works in fundraising for a nonprofit organization thinks redrawing the districts is a good idea, but worries about the logistics.

"What happens if they can't change the map in enough time? Does that push the primary back?" she said. "I'm definitely worried."

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Robertson reported from Raleigh.