It was a week full of drama for North Carolina politics. Filing to run for elected offices across the state was set to begin at noon Monday, but candidates for Congress and the North Carolina House and Senate were turned away after an 11th-hour ruling by the state Court of Appeals.
The court reversed that decision Monday night and filing for statewide and federal races opened back up for two days before the North Carolina Supreme Court stepped in.
Wednesday afternoon, justices on the highest court in the state stopped candidate filing again and ordered North Carolina’s primary elections delayed until May.
This all comes amid a lawsuit over redistricting, which accuses the Republican-led legislature of partisan and racial gerrymandering. The lawsuits accuse the General Assembly of approving new political maps that take power away from Democrats and Black voters.
Essentially, the arguments come down to this: North Carolina is a purple state, but the new maps give Republicans an advantage to pick up more seats in Congress and keep their majorities in the General Assembly, if not win back super majorities in the state House and Senate.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which analyzed the maps, gave all three maps a “F” grade and said each gave Republicans a significant advantage in the next election.
The lawsuits argue the gerrymandering in the three maps violates the state constitution.
The North Carolina Supreme Court’s order delays the primary elections to May 17. It was originally scheduled for March 8. The State Board of Elections has not yet announced when the new filing period will open.
The board said that anyone who has already filed will still be registered as a candidate, assuming they are still eligible to run in that seat based on any potential court rulings about the districts.
While the legal fight is over the districts for Congress and the state House and Senate, all local primaries will also be delayed, according to the board.
Multiple lawsuits challenge the maps
The lawsuit that originally delayed candidate filing, filed by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and others, is one of three cases filed in Wake County challenging redistricting.
The League of Conservation Voters lawsuit says the maps are unconstitutional because they dilute the power of minority voters.
The second lawsuit, from the North Carolina NAACP and Common Cause, argues the redistricting process itself was flawed because legislative committees in charge of redistricting did not include considerations of race to make sure they complied with the Voting Rights Act.
The third suit, titled Harper v. Hall, argues the new maps are a partisan gerrymander similar to the last maps that were thrown out by a court in 2019. That would mean the maps were drawn in a way to lessen the power of Democratic voters.
The North Carolina Supreme Court ruling delaying the election is on both the League of Conservation Voters case and the Harper v. Hall case.
Reaction to the court ruling was split down party lines.
“I am deeply disappointed in the State Supreme Court’s decision to halt and further delay our election process that is already underway,” said North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican.
“To throw this process into chaos in the middle of filing leaves North Carolinians with uncertainty ahead of the election. Despite this delay, we are confident that we will prevail at trial and our maps will stand,” Moore said.
Democrats, on the other hand, applauded the ruling.
“Today’s order by the state Supreme Court restores faith in the rule of law and it is necessary for the Court to rule on the constitutionality of these unfair districts before the next election,” Gov. Roy Cooper said.
How did we get here?
Redistricting comes every ten years after new official population numbers are released by the Census Bureau. The whole process was delayed this year because the census numbers were released late, thanks to problems collecting the data during the pandemic.
The redistricting process in North Carolina is typically done behind closed doors. This year was different. Redistricting committees at the North Carolina General Assembly tried to make the process more public by drawing the actual maps in an open committee room, similar to the court-ordered process to redraw the maps after a judge’s ruling in the last cycle.
But legislators in the Republican-led committees were on a tight deadline to complete the new maps for congressional and legislative districts. If they wanted to hold the primary election in March, the Board of Elections needed the maps to be complete by early November.
During the public hearing process, a number of speakers asked the redistricting committees to delay the primary to May, when North Carolina traditionally held its partisan primaries. The question also came up during committee debates, but Republican leaders on the committees refused to consider changing that date.
The Republican-controlled General Assembly voted to approve the three maps, for Congress and the state House and Senate, on party-line votes. The governor does not have veto power over redistricting maps.
The first lawsuit was filed even before the maps were complete. The other two lawsuits came quickly after.
What happens with the case now?
The state Supreme Court’s ruling essentially gives time for a three-judge panel in Wake County to hear both sides of the case and make a ruling on whether the new maps are constitutional.
The order sets a Jan. 11 deadline for the Wake County judges to issue a written ruling. In terms of the legal system, that will be a very fast turnaround for both sides.
Either side will have two business days to appeal the ruling in Wake County, which will almost certainly happen in a case like this. That appeal would go directly to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where it will be fast-tracked for a final ruling.
The state Supreme Court is a partisan court with four Democrats and three Republicans. The plaintiffs in one of the cases have asked for one of those Republicans, Justice Phil Berger Jr., to be removed in the case because he is the son of Senate leader Phil Berger Sr.
What are the possible outcomes?
It’s impossible to know how the court could rule on these redistricting cases. What is certain is that the 2022 primary elections will be held on May 17. According to court filings by the State Board of Elections, that is the last possible day to hold the primaries in order to be on track for the November 8 General Election.
The courts could decide to keep the maps as they are if they don’t find evidence of unconstitutional gerrymandering, in which case, things would proceed with the current maps.
But if the North Carolina Supreme Court decides the maps are unconstitutional, they will have to be redrawn. Any new map drawing process could take several forms.
The legislature itself could redraw the maps, similar to what happened the last time a court forced a redraw of the North Carolina maps. The court could bring in a third party to redraw the maps or opt to use a set of “optimized maps” made with computer algorithms and included in the League of Conservation Voters lawsuit.
The legal and political drama has moved quickly over the past week. That speed won’t stop as both sides in this fight work to get a decision from the courts early in the new year.