The day after a panel of federal judges invalidated two of North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts, state elections officials were working on a Saturday afternoon to encourage voters with absentee ballots to vote the full ballot anyway.
Kim Strach, executive director of the N.C. Board of Elections, and Josh Lawson, general counsel for the board, said Saturday that they did not want voters who received the 8,611 absentee ballots sent out for the March 15 primary elections to lose an opportunity to vote.
“The number one message we want to get out is we want voters to continue voting,” Strach said Saturday afternoon.
Late on Friday, a three-judge panel ruled that North Carolina’s 1st and 12th congressional districts were racial gerrymanders and ordered them redrawn by Feb. 19.
Though the ruling halts elections in those districts until new maps are approved, questions remained on Saturday about what that would mean for other congressional races on the primary ballots.
Gerry Cohen, a former legislative staffer who worked on redistricting plans from 1981 to 2011, said Saturday that a range of possibilities existed for what could happen in North Carolina.
Several times over the past three decades, primary elections were delayed either in whole or in part for district maps that had to be redrawn.
Primary elections for races not affected by the congressional maps could go ahead, Cohen said, and the congressional elections delayed until new lines were approved.
There also was at least one time, Cohen said, in which elections were held for maps ultimately deemed to be unconstitutional.
“We’ve had a number of times where the state has lost a case that we’ve had to postpone primaries,” Cohen said.
What is different this time, Cohen said, is that voting by absentee ballots has already started.
Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine, said in a post on his electionlawblog.org that because ballots have already been cast, the federal panel’s ruling might be stayed until after the primary elections.
“I would not at all be surprised to see a stay even if, as seems fairly likely, this ruling is ultimately affirmed by the Supreme Court for future elections,” Hasen said. “And of course, North Carolina could potentially moot this case by drawing new districts that are political, but not arguably racial, gerrymanders.”
Role of race
The districts were remapped as part of a 2011 redistricting plan adopted by the Republican-led General Assembly a year after the 2010 census.
Though the courts have allowed congressional and legislative maps to be drawn for partisan advantage, race cannot play a major role in the development of districts.
In the lawsuit decided by the three-judge panel on Friday, Christine Bowser and Samuel Love, both registered voters from Mecklenburg County, and David Harris, a registered voter from Durham County, contended that the 2011 redistricting plans packed black voters into districts to reduce their overall power across the state.
The 1st District, which is represented by Democrat G.K. Butterfield, weaves through 24 counties and contains only five whole ones as it collects voters in Durham, Elizabeth City, Roanoke Rapids, Rocky Mount, Goldsboro and New Bern.
The 12th District, which has been described by geographers, political science experts and others as a prime example of gerrymandering, is 120 miles long but only 20 miles across at its widest part. It includes large portions of Charlotte and Greensboro connected by a thin strip that follows the arc of Interstate 85.
Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat from Greensboro, represents the 12th District.
The 2011 lines have helped Republicans expand their majorities within the state’s congressional delegation and at the state House.
Legislators who led the redistricting process have already talked about an appeal, which would go straight to the U.S. Supreme Court.
A request for an emergency stay would go to the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. In a similar case this year from Virginia, a Fourth Circuit panel refused to delay the redrawing of gerrymandered districts until after a U.S. Supreme Court review.
The judges said further delay would compound the injuries.
Reps. Robert Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican, and David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, both of whom were involved in the redrawing the congressional district lines in 2011, said in a statement that Friday’s ruling would cause votes to be thrown out.
Anita Earls, a civil rights attorney and executive director of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented the challengers, said Saturday that legislators’ complaints rang hollow with her.
The General Assembly voted last summer to move the primary elections, knowing that several redistricting challenges were in the state and federal courts. Initially the legislators talked about holding the presidential primaries in March and keeping other races in May. They then decided to hold all primary elections at the same time.
“This is an emergency that they created by changing the elections,” Earls said.
Two other redistricting challenges are in the courts
In state court, the NAACP and others have challenged the 2011 maps as racial gerrymanders that dilute the influence of black voters.
The challenge in state court has been rejected by a three-judge panel in N.C. Superior Court and twice by the N.C. Supreme Court. That decision has been appealed.
A case filed by Sandra Little Covington and 26 other North Carolina voters challenges nine state Senate districts and 19 state House districts in federal court.
A three-judge panel ruled in November against a request to delay the March primary elections until the lawsuit had been decided. A trial in the case is set for April.
Judges on the federal panel that found the 1st and 12th districts to be gerrymanders
▪ U.S. Circuit Judge Roger Gregory was a recess appointment by President Bill Clinton in late 2000 and later nominated by President George W. Bush in 2001.
▪ U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn was nominated in 2011 by President Barack Obama
▪ U.S. District Judge William Osteen was nominated in 2007 by President George W. Bush