Cumberland County Commission Districts Are Unconstitutional

That’s a bold headline, I know. Here’s why it’s true:

One Person, One Vote

Cumberland County’s Commission is strange in the way it elects its members. The Current Districts were selected in 2011. Here’s the map:

  • Two individuals are elected out of District 1. District 1 had 70,965 registered voters in 2011.
  • Three individuals are elected out of District 2. District 2 had 121,545 registered voters in 2011.
  • Two members are elected “at-large.” Everyone in the County gets to vote for these members.

This one is pretty obvious. If you live in District 1, you only get to vote for 4 out of the 7 members of the commission. If you live in District 2, you get to vote for 5 out of the 7 members.

This violates the principle of “one-person, one-vote” that was established by our Supreme Court several decades ago. I’m not going to give you a legal treatise on the subject, but the gist is this: districts should be formulated in such a way to ensure that everyone’s vote counts the same.

It’s an equal protection problem when a system is set up to give certain people more “say” in their elected body. Right now, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that a voter in District 2 has more power than a voter in District 1 in Cumberland County.

Racial Gerrymander

These Districts are “odd” for a reason. They were set up this way to ensure we had at least two minority members on the County Commission:

  • District 1 is 58% Black (registered voters). The two current commissioners from District 1 are black.
  • District 2 is 60% White (registered voters). The three current commissioners from District 2 are white.

Click “Download” to read the County Commission’s Own Data from 2011. “Alternative A” was chosen:

You’ll see that Cumberland County literally drew its commission district boundaries along racial lines. Nothing else, but race, seemed to matter.

Those in charge selected this map in an attempt to comply with the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act. They wanted to ensure that minorities had an opportunity to get elected. This requirement is no longer law. It was struck down, one year later in 2012 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. The Supreme Court held that states and counties (like Cumberland) no longer had to ask permission from the Justice Department when making changes to their election systems.

Cooper v. Harris

In 2011, at the same time Cumberland was drawing its commission districts, Republicans in the North Carolina legislature gerrymandered the living daylights out of our state’s congressional districts. Republicans “packed” African Americans into districts to ensure Republicans would win the majority of the seats. They succeeded.

The plans were challenged, and struck down.

The Supreme Court held that it was unconstitutional to draw districts on racial lines in the absence of a compelling government interest that was narrowly tailored to achieve that interest. Following the Voting Rights Act is a compelling interest but you have to show that minorities have a history of losing before you pack them into their “special district.” The map-makers hadn’t done this, so they lost.

Breakdown

That’s a lot of law summarized and condensed into a blog post. All you really need to know is this: times have changed, and the law has evolved with the times. Cumberland County’s election system hasn’t.

Charles Evans, an African American, recently won an at-large seat on the Cumberland County Commission. African Americans have won multiple county-wide judicial races as of late, and once everyone is sworn in, the Fayetteville City Council will be made of 7 African Americans and 2 Whites.

In short, we shouldn’t racially gerrymander in Cumberland County. It’s not needed. It’s a vestige of the past, and it further factions our community, increasing racial tensions. More importantly, it’s unconstitutional.

These maps are ripe for a judicial challenge. If they are not challenged, they will be re-drawn in 2021, and when that happens, they should be drawn fairly and give every citizen of Cumberland County an equal say.


Note: Thanks to City Councilman Ted Mohn for drawing attention to this issue.

2 responses

  1. Thank You Matt. For years I wanted to challenge our County Commissioner Districts. Out of professional courtesy I would never do that while being a sitting Fayetteville City Council Member. Times have changed and ready to engage the conversation.

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  2. Matt. How do we get get groups like Democracy NC, Fair Maps Org and others to jump on this and send a letter to our County Commissioners informing them they are going to be challenged unless they make an immediate change. You have contacts with various lawyers that I don’t have.

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