By Richard Sullins |

Once more, Lee County is drawing national attention, but it’s not because of Sanford’s top-five micropolitan area rating or the county’s incredible success in luring industry to locate here.

It’s because of redistricting. And it’s the fourth such report in just six weeks.

In a story published Saturday in its Politics section, The New York Times (subscription required) reports on the redrawing of the county’s electoral maps this fall and the controversy that continues to surround it.

The article, written by Nick Corasaniti and Reid J. Epstein, recounts the struggle of Black residents 32 years ago to end a system that had kept them frozen out of political power. Among those leading the charge in 1989 was Robert Reives, Sr., who demanded that the county either create a majority-minority district or face a lawsuit under the Voting Rights Act.

Ultimately, the county settled and Reives became the first Black commissioner elected within Lee County. He has held that position for the past 30 years, oftentimes without facing opposition.

Because of shifts in population that were identified when the 2020 Census was taken, it became necessary to redraw the lines that defined what districts voters reside in and who represents them on the Commission. That two-month process of coming up with different ways to draw the maps and narrowing them down to one was controversial from beginning to end.

Here’s how the Times writers described what happened: “Republicans, newly in power and in control of the redrawing of county maps, extended the district to the northeast, adding more rural and suburban white voters to the mostly rural district southwest of Raleigh and effectively diluting the influence of its Black voters. Mr. Reives, who is still the county’s only Black commissioner, fears he will now lose his seat.”

A similar story was reported on December 9 by CNN reporter Fredreka Schouten. Her story said, in part, “voting rights activists are sounding alarms about what they say is a broad effort to dilute the voting strength of people of color and sideline the Black elected officials across the South who have made inroads into local government in recent decades.”

Schouten pointed to the redrawing of political boundaries in this county as an example, saying “in Lee County, North Carolina, a new map adopted by a 4-3 vote of the county commission reduced the number of minority voters in the county’s only majority-minority district. If it stands, it could lead to the ouster of the county’s sole Black commissioner, after more than three decades in office.”

The story first drew national attention in the left-leaning Mother Jones publication on November 5, just weeks after commissioners voted along party lines to approve the map which moved about 675 voters into Reives’ district from a predominantly white district to the north. That piece was written by Ari Berman, also a contributing writer at The Nation magazine.

Berman wrote “for weeks this fall, Lee County had been considering redistricting plans that preserved Black representation, so Reives was shocked when he walked into a commission meeting on October 4 and found a new plan sitting on his chair, requested by a GOP member of the commission with no public scrutiny or advance notice, that added nearly 700 voters from overwhelmingly Republican and rural parts of the county, leading white voters to outnumber Black ones in Reives’ district for the first time since it was created.”

Berman quotes Reives’ response upon seeing the proposed changes to his district: “When I finally looked at the numbers, I knew right away this would not provide any support or advantage for me in District 1. When you have a couple of miles or more and all you see are Republican signs and Trump flags, I don’t get the feeling that my signs are going to matter in that area.”

The purpose of all this, Reives told the Times reporters, was “to get me out of the seat.”

The online journal Truthout published an op-ed about the issue on December 2.

Republicans, however, have maintained that the districts were drawn legally and fairly, and that Democrats are howling only because they are not in the majority and getting to design the districts themselves. That being said, the county’s last decennial redistricting in 2011 – which did not seek to redraw District 1 in a similar way – was also controlled by Republicans. It was far less controversial at the time.

Republican Commissioner Andre Knecht, speaking at the October 18 meeting when the controversial map was adopted, disagreed with the notion that the map was an attempt to target Reives.

“I think that, as all the other maps as well do, (the Plan F map) meets all the necessary parameters and does take into account the future growth as well that may be coming,” he said. “It may throw some things out of balance. I don’t feel that this was set up as a map that is to, as you put it, oust Commissioner Reives. I don’t think that at all.”

A statement made by Republican County Commission Chairman Kirk Smith to The Rant on December 7 was included in Saturday’s Times article. In it, Smith said “to say 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.”

Lee GOP Chairman Jim Womack has also taken issue with those who say that the process was unfair. In the same December 7 story by The Rant, Womack said “Lee County Commissioners produced legal, ethical, and practical maps in strict accordance with the law. (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 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.”

The county has had a majority-minority district since that threat of a lawsuit back in 1989. A majority-minority district is generally understood as one where the majority of citizens are members of minority groups. Such districts had been protected by law since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and Lee was one of many counties in the South that were required to get pre-approval by the US Department of Justice of any changes to their district maps.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Section 5 of the Act unconstitutional but affirmed that states are still bound by its remaining provisions that prohibit voting practices or procedures that discriminate based on race, color, or a minority group language.

Dr. Bob Joyce of the UNC School of Government told WUNC public radio in July that North Carolina “has been in the courts on the question of redistricting — and especially on the question of racial discrimination in redistricting — more than any other state.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2019 that claims of partisan gerrymandering should be settled at the state level. Claims based on race, however, may be allowed. Cases that allege gerrymandering, for whatever reason, often take years to make their way through the courts.

But a decision on the legality of the most recent congressional maps may not be long in coming. On December 8, the North Carolina Supreme Court moved the state’s primary from March 8 to May 17 so that 2 cases challenging the new maps could be heard.

The order said the trial courts in each case must rule by January 11, with any appeals to be followed by an expedited process. In the meantime, filing for public office remains frozen and will not resume until the state Supreme Court hands down its final rulings on the cases.

So, all of this could be over by the time voters go to the polls next May. But don’t bet on it.