By Richard Sullins |

Action by the Lee County Board of Commissioners’ Republican majority to redraw county electoral maps this year has now gotten national attention, thanks to an op-ed that appeared recently in an online news reporting website with nationwide reach.

The editorial, entitled “Redistricting Threatens Decades of Black Voters’ Hard-Fought Victories,” was published last week in Truthout, a nonprofit news organization whose online journal focuses on reporting and commentary on a wide range of social justice issues.

It was written by three nationally known figures in the civil rights movement: Virginia Kase Solomon, CEO of the League of Women Voters in Washington, Allison Riggs, co-executive director and chief voting rights counsel for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham, and Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of the Black Voters Matter Fund in Atlanta.

The editorial concerns actions taken by the Republican majority during the fall to revise the county’s maps for choosing its members, a task that was required by shifts in the population that were identified through the 2020 Census. Commissioners were originally presented with four maps as possible means of redrawing the district lines, but a new map was produced at each of the next three board meetings with little opportunity for public review or comment.

The map that was ultimately adopted on October 18, known as “Plan F,” was the second of the three plans drawn by the Republican members. Democrats protested unsuccessfully that this was a blatant attempt by Republicans to oust long-time Democratic Commissioner Robert Reives Sr., the board’s only minority member. The map was adopted along party lines.

The Truthout editorial says the four Republican commissioners – Chairman Kirk Smith, Vice Chair Arianna Lavallee, Dr. Andre Knecht, and Bill Carver – “manipulated the county’s only Black voting district and threatened to roll back Black voters’ ability to elect candidates of their choice.”

“Lee County’s Republican commissioners rammed through a voting map dramatically decreasing the Black population and shoring up the white population in District 1, the county’s only opportunity district for communities of color,” the writers say, making the further claim that “Lee County exploited the population growth of communities of color by choosing to focus on bolstering the political power of declining white populations.”

The writers say “certain commissioners not only ignored warnings against drawing maps for partisan gain, but they also denied the public any chance to comment on changes to districts for communities of color by refusing to hold public hearings that would ensure Lee County residents could ask questions, provide alternatives or hold elected officials accountable.”

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice entered the fray over redistricting at the October 18 meeting through a letter written by its legal counsel, Mitchell Brown, which had been placed at each of the commissioners’ seats prior to the start of the meeting. The process the majority followed to adopt its preferred version of the redistricting plan was called to the attention of the Coalition by Sanford resident Brenda Johnson.

In the letter, Brown informed commissioners that his nonprofit civil rights organization “partners with communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities in the South to defend and advance their political, social, and economic rights through the combination of legal advocacy, research, organizing, and communications.”

The letter reminded commissioners of a lawsuit filed by the Lee County Chapter of the NAACP in 1989 that led to an overhaul of the county’s district lines and the way it elected its commissioners. It went on to claim that the Commission’s Plan F, which was drawn up shortly before the October 4 meeting, was developed “behind closed doors in a process that lacked the transparency needed to instill public confidence” in both the process and the product.

In an interview with The Rant, Brown accused the Republican Commissioners of running “a Houdini show” with the final three versions of the plan, with each not receiving a proper opportunity for the public to review and comment before the next one was produced. He said that his organization is looking at the voting age population data to see how the increase or decrease among minorities tracks with that of the general population.

In a statement to The Rant, the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said “while it remains unclear if there will be litigation surrounding districts in Lee County, North Carolina, the county’s maps, and the process that created them, represents a prime example of attacks on representation for communities of color we’re seeing in many parts of the South.”

“Lee County is also a stark illustration of how redistricting without the protections of the Voting Rights Act can hurt Black candidates across generations, with Commissioner Robert Reives, Sr. stripped of his opportunity district in Lee County during the very same cycle that his son, Rep. Robert Reives II is seeing his own Black state legislative caucus decimated by similar gerrymandering efforts.”

County Commission Chairman Kirk Smith disagrees with the article’s assertion that voters of one race will only vote for candidates of that same race.

“To say that only a person of a certain racial or ethnic group can represent only a person of the same racial or ethnic group has all the trappings of ethnocentric racism,” he said. “Not only that, but this is just another form of tribalism and that is destructive to our Constitutional Republic.”

Lee County Republican Party Chairman Jim Womack also takes issue with the piece, challenging its assertion that race or politics was behind the drawing of district lines.

“We hear a lot of noise about lawsuits and vulnerability of the county, yet no one to date has bothered to file a suit,” he said. “Perhaps that is the case because there is nothing to sue over. The Lee County Commissioners produced legal, ethical, and practical maps in strict accordance with the law.”

Womack said despite the chatter about the commissioners’ maps, few have examined their impact at a granular level.

“To date, no one has bothered to actually analyze the new districts to see just what changed in district demographics,” he said. “(Don) Kovasckitz of the (Lee County) GIS team provided some useful information during his assessment of the Commissioners’ map permutation – it met federal and state guidelines and is reasonably balanced based on the most recent census population.”

“He also assessed that the new maps preserved the ‘community of interest’ for the minority population in District 1,” Womack continued. “As the courts have insisted, ‘race’ cannot be used or even considered when drawing up the maps, without being in violation of case law. Race was not used for any purpose.”

Womack further argued that “Mr. Kovascitz provided four or five options. But each of them caused significant changes in several district boundaries, and some were more compact than others. When they evaluated Map Option A (which several commissioners preferred) and took comments from citizens (myself included) – they realized that option continued to seriously, geographically gerrymander the 1st District to accommodate the old ‘minority majority’ district purpose.”

Democrats had asserted that about 300 black voters were swapped for white voters, something Womack called “patently false.”

He described the work done by the four Republican commissioners as “the best, most compact, and contiguous maps in Lee County history. The 1st District still has the ‘community of interest’ preserved so that the county’s minority Black population has a good opportunity to elect its own representation. Once voter registration files are updated with the new boundaries, I believe the 1st District will likely remain heavily democratic (sic); but the court guidelines do not permit us to draw boundaries for that expressed purpose.”