On July 1, the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Wake County commission and school board maps—redrawn by the legislature to be made more favorable to Republicans in the wake of humiliating electoral defeats—were unconstitutional. The three-judge panel wrote: "We see no reason why the November 2016 elections should proceed under the unconstitutional plans we strike down today."
Thus began a scramble among Wake Republicans to fix this mess. This weekend, they came up with what can only be described as the worst possible solution.
On Sunday, U.S. District Court Judge James Dever, a George W. Bush appointee who is overseeing the case and apparently chafing at the Fourth Circuit's ruling, ordered the Wake County Board of Elections to rank from best to worst four possible scenarios. The options were: reverting to maps in place before the legislature meddled; using new maps put forward by state legislative leaders; using new maps put forward by Democratic state representative Rosa Gill; and—unbelievably—proceeding with the maps that the Fourth Circuit had already deemed unconstitutional.
Dever gave the board until Monday afternoon to figure it out, but there was a problem: one of the Republican seats on the county board had been vacant since last month. (County boards of elections have three members, two from the governor's party and one from the opposition party.)
The solution? The state board called an emergency phone meeting—with just ninety minutes' notice to the public—in which officials confirmed a new member: Eddie Woodhouse, a former Raleigh City Council candidate and aide to Jesse Helms who is also the cousin of state GOP executive director Dallas Woodhouse.
"This being done, in this manner and at this stage of the game, only proves the intent of the GOP majority," says Wake County Democratic Party chairman Brian Fitzsimmons. "They have no regard for public input or intent, because they know that the majority of the public isn't on their side. Dark rooms and late-night maneuvers are all they can muster at this point, all to ensure conservative control over a county commission."
At his first meeting Monday night—held via conference call—Woodhouse didn't disappoint. For his first act, he tried to eliminate Sunday early voting, which black churches (read: Democrats) use to drive turnout. That didn't pass. But then the board, required by court order to extend early voting to seventeen days from ten, decided to only open the county BOE offices those extra seven days—literally the least they could legally do.
Then, the decision we were all waiting for. In a court filing later that night, the newly configured board released its ranking of the redistricting options. Number one—surprise!—was the very maps the Fourth Circuit had declared unconstitutional, because these maps required no additional work on the board's part. After that, in order: the 2011 maps, Gill's maps, and the legislative leaders' maps.
On Tuesday morning, Dever ruled that both the school board and commission races would revert to the 2011 maps. All nine school district and three commission seats will be on the November ballot for two-year terms; there will be a new filing period for the school board seats, but no new primary. In short, it's an unmitigated mess.
Dever ordered that these plans only be used in the November 2016 elections, and said he "expects the General Assembly to enact an appropriate and constitutional system" in the next session. Which means that this battle isn't over; it's merely been postponed.