District concerns aired

Published 1:38 am Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Beaufort County’s elections director has written a letter outlining her concerns about a legislative redistricting plan that would carve the city of Washington out of Beaufort County and place it in a state House district rooted in western Pitt County.
Analysis by the Beaufort County Board of Elections indicates all of the city – save a small section of Washington’s Ward 4 – would be joined with the newly aligned Pitt County district through a slender finger reaching through the center of Pitt.
The proposed territory, House District 9, is one legislative leaders drew as they sought to craft majority-minority districts and comply with the federal Voting Rights Act.
All of the state’s new district blueprints hadn’t been released at last report, and none of them had been approved by the Legislature.
Though District 9 would have a majority of black voters, a voter-registration statistical report obtained Friday shows that two of the Washington precincts included in the proposed district are majority white. These two precincts are Washington’s Ward 1 and Ward 4.
Black voters hold a slim majority in the city’s Ward 2, which has 772 black voters versus 742 white voters, and a large majority in the P.S. Jones-Ward 3 territory, which has 1,067 black voters to 462 white voters.
Critics of the plan say it doesn’t meet the voting-rights test because it wouldn’t give Beaufort County’s black candidates a reasonable opportunity to win election in a district that belongs mostly to Pitt County.
In her letter to Rep. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, Elections Director Kellie Harris Hopkins doesn’t weigh in on the plan’s division of the county – her points focus on the way District 9 treats voting tabulation districts.
Cook is a member of the House redistricting committee.
He has said he wasn’t aware of the proposed district outlines before they were released to the public. He has also said that he would prefer his home county remain whole in one legislative district.
Hopkins said she drafted the letter at Cook’s request after having a conversation with the representative.
“I have deep concern about the plan splitting Voting Tabulation Districts,” she wrote. “From posted information on the (N.C.) General Assembly’s website, six Beaufort County Precincts are split by District Nine.”
The Legislature’s website explains the principle behind VTDs in relation to redistricting, in which state lawmakers redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts every 10 years following the U.S. census.
“The numeric data matches up with the geographic data at several different levels,” reads a post on the NCGA’s website. “The main levels of interest in district drawing are counties, voting tabulation districts (VTDs), and census blocks. These three main levels have a nesting relationship. In other words, counties are comprised of VTDs that, in turn, are comprised of census blocks. Each level covers the entire territory of the state, such that there is no point within the state’s boundaries that cannot be assigned to each of the three levels.”
At least in the case of the would-be District 9, split VTDs are an issue, Hopkins’ letter shows. The letter echoes comments made in June by Tom Payne, chairman of the county’s elections board.
“There are two major concerns,” Hopkins wrote. “First, splitting precincts, in Beaufort County or any other County for that matter, will create added ballot styles for Counties to administer. For example, if a VTD is whole, and by whole I mean all in the same district, all voters would receive a ballot with that particular district’s contest. By splitting precincts, two ballots would be in place and it would be up to the precinct officials to determine which ballot a voter receives. Errors could be made by poll officials which could in turn affect election results. This also confuses voters.”
Hopkins goes on to explain that District 9 would take small numbers of voters from certain precincts, including just seven voters from Chocowinity which, with 3,421 voters, is the largest of Beaufort County’s 21 precincts.
“For example, the seven within the Chocowinity Precinct may be two adults with five children and we could assume that two could possibly be registered to vote,” the letter reads. “We would have to have a separate ballot style for those two people. So within the VTD of Chocowinity, only two (and no more than seven) would be given a different ballot. I am concerned with the cost and administration of the election, but my major concern is that of ballot secrecy. By having such a small number of voters with that ballot style, I am afraid that reporting by VTD which is required  by law, could possibly allow others to know how someone marked their ballot.”
Hopkins finishes her letter by asserting that VTD lines should be followed if possible.
“It would cost the counties less, be more easily administered by Boards of Elections and poll workers, would cause less voter confusion, and does not negate ballot secrecy,” she wrote. “At the very least, those VTDs that include extremely small numbers should be changed.”
Beaufort County is now whole and intact in District 6, which is represented by Cook. The fact that District 9 would divide the county has been met with bipartisan disapproval from local political leaders, including the chairmen of the county’s Democratic and Republican parties.
Numerous local officials have said carving up the county would diminish its clout in Raleigh and reduce the chances of electing a representative who actually lives here.
The district, as configured at present, would have its most immediate effect on Rep. Edith Warren, D-Pitt, the Pitt County Board of Elections has confirmed. Warren would be switched from District 8 to District 9.
But one source familiar with the redistricting process says GOP leaders in the Republican-controlled Legislature are confident the new district lines will win approval from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Justice Department has to “preclear” these plans ahead of next year’s elections. Preclearance is required because 40 North Carolina counties fall under a certain section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was designed to protect minority voting rights after many blacks faced decades of denial at the polls.
A Daily News analysis recently showed there is no statistical reason to divide the existing House District 6. As things stand, the district falls within a plus-or-minus 5 percent window in terms of population change since the 2000 census. This means the district wouldn’t have to get larger or smaller in response to census tracts.
And some officials have wondered aloud what will happen to the county when the full redistricting maps, not just the majority-minority portions, are unveiled.
Cook himself addressed the controversy last week in remarks to the Beaufort County Republican Club during a meeting in Chocowinity.
A redistricting question from Larry Britt, a former chairman of the county GOP, led to a quick response from Cook.
Britt asked whether the maps released so far are still up for discussion.
“There are those who say it’s been decided,” Britt said.
“Nothing’s carved in stone,” Cook replied.
When Britt pressed Cook on whether the districts already are “locked in,” Cook responded with, “That’s what I said, that’s what I mean.”
“It really has not been decided,” Cook continued. “And I don’t want to give anybody, particularly not the press, that impression. We will be discussing these districts for the next probably two weeks.”
The Legislature is scheduled to meet July 13 to take up redistricting.
Cook pointed out there had been a series of public hearings on the process.