Delay likely in May primaries

Staff WriterFebruary 6, 2004 

State and local primaries scheduled for May 4 will probably be postponed, because the federal government is not likely to approve new legislative districts in time.

The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing new House and Senate districts for compliance with the federal Voting Rights Act, which requires that the plans do not dilute the power of minority voters.

By law, if the districts aren't approved by Monday morning, the State Board of Elections must postpone the primaries. Candidates are supposed to begin filing at noon Monday.

"It's pretty clear they're not going to be done by Monday," said House co-Speaker Jim Black, a Matthews Democrat.

Unreliable election dates are becoming a pattern. Two years ago, legal battles over legislative districts pushed the primaries from May to September.

The unsettled election calendar frustrates voters, politicians and elections workers.

Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said his office is planning for a May 4 primary but also preparing for a delay. It is "not impossible" that federal clearance to use the maps could come by Monday, he said, but "at this moment, it looks impractical."

Court documents filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., make it appear even more unlikely. State and federal lawyers worked out a schedule that sets a Feb. 27 deadline for the Justice Department to tell the state what objections it has to the redistricting plans.

State courts declared unconstitutional redistricting plans drawn by a Democratic-controlled legislature in 2001 and 2002 after Republicans challenged the districts. A Superior Court judge drew districts for the 2002 elections, but they were only for one-time use.

The same group of Republicans, including Sen. Patrick Ballantine of Wilmington and former state GOP Chairman Bill Cobey, is trying to block the new plans, which legislators approved in November.

A later primary could hurt Ballantine, Cobey and other Republican candidates running for governor, because they would spend more time competing for votes against each other, and the GOP nominee would have less time to focus on defeating incumbent Democratic Gov. Mike Easley.

"This is probably against my own self-interest to be the Republican nominee on May 5," Ballantine said Thursday. "I would like to bring the Bush administration folks in to help me as soon as possible. That won't happen until after the primary."

If the Justice Department approves the new districts by Monday, Ballantine said his group should drop its lawsuit challenging the districts because the suit is based on Voting Rights law.

Ballantine said Democrats waited until late last year to approve new districts, knowing they would not win federal approval for a May primary. "It's all part of their strategy to obstruct and delay and cause redistricting fatigue," he said.

Black said Republicans started the parade of redistricting lawsuits.

Staff writer Lynn Bonner can be reached at 829-4821 or lbonner@newsobserver.com.

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