Politicians are maneuvering, the courts are set to deliberate, and voters are continuing to wait for finalized political maps and a date for the North Carolina 2022 primary elections.
On Wednesday, Republicans passed a bill on party-line votes in the House and Senate to again delay the primary elections, this time until June. This comes in the context of the political and legal fight over the state’s redistricting maps, which could shape the political future of the state’s legislature and U.S. congressional delegation for at least a decade.
The current maps, which the legislature drew in the fall, would all but lock in Republican control over state politics. If the court overturns those maps, Democrats have a chance to land on a more even playing field in a state whose geography slightly favors Republicans but votes nearly 50-50 in statewide races.
After a Democratic Party-affiliated group and two pro-democracy advocacy groups sued the state legislature over the maps they drew in the fall, the state Supreme Court delayed the elections from March to May to give courts time to review the case.
Republicans now aim for an additional delay to give the legislature time to redraw the political maps should the court rule the current maps violate the state constitution.
In the state courts’ landmark redistricting case from 2002, called Stephenson, the courts ruled the maps were unconstitutional, created some new requirements for drawing maps, then asked the legislature to try again, said Michael Bitzer, a professor of political science and history at Catawba College.
Political map-drawing “is an inherently legislative duty,” Bitzer said.
Both through legal filings in the lawsuit and in public statements supporting postponement of the primaries until June, Republican leadership stresses the importance of the General Assembly being able to draw, then redraw the maps.
But courts can and have, both at the state and federal levels, put conditions on how the legislature can redraw maps once their first attempts are deemed unconstitutional. They could appoint a “special master,” or independent outside expert, to review the maps before the courts approve them, Bitzer said.
The Supreme Court could also decide to go with an entirely different process should it deem the maps unconstitutional. In 2018, the Republican-controlled legislature made appellate judicial elections partisan. Now, the state’s highest court sits four Democrats and three Republicans, perhaps explaining Republican anxiety over the decision and timing of drawing new maps.
“Never be surprised by anything that happens in North Carolina politics nowadays,” Bitzer said.
Timelines and justifications
The state Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the redistricting case on Feb. 2. The court will then have to issue a ruling, a process that often takes months but in this case is expected to take only days.
If the court rules that there is no problem with the maps, there seems to be little issue with carrying out the elections on the current timeline.
The debate starts with the possibility that the state Supreme Court rules that the maps are unconstitutional. In that case, either the legislature or a special master will need to redraw the maps.
In order to run elections on the current schedule with primaries on May 17, the N.C. State Board of Elections will need finalized maps no later than Feb. 23, according to board spokesperson Pat Gannon.
Republicans say that is not enough time for the court to make its decision and for the legislature to redraw the maps.
Speaking for the Democrats, House Minority Leader Robert Reives II said the legislature should not interfere with the court’s schedule before it even has a chance to hear the case, let alone make a decision.
Each party claims that if it doesn’t get its way, voters will lose confidence in the election. Reives said passing the bill gives the appearance that the legislature is interfering with the courts.
During discussion on the Senate Redistricting and Elections Committee, Republican Co-Chair Warren Daniel said passing the bill will reduce voter confusion.
Neither politician provided any evidence for those claims.
Daniel also stated that delaying the primary date would give potential candidates more time to decide whether they would like to run and which district to run in.
Both in that Senate committee and on the House floor, Democrats asked about the timing of the June primary, which is currently scheduled for the last week of school. Schools often close and serve as voting locations on election days, but that would likely not be an option in the final week of classes, making it more difficult to find places to vote.
Gov. Roy Cooper has not said whether he will veto the bill. If he does, the unanimous Democratic opposition to the bill in the legislature would suggest Republicans would not have enough votes to override the veto.
Instead of commenting on the veto, Cooper’s press secretary, Jordan Monaghan, said, “Legislators should avoid additional attempts to undermine the voting process.”
Monaghan did not respond to questions about how a further postponement of the election would undermine voting. The State Board of Elections will be able to run the primaries on May 17 or June 7, according to Gannon.