With North Carolina’s Congressional districts ruled — yet again — to be unconstitutionally gerrymandered on Monday, the state’s November elections are suddenly up in the air.
The ruling from a three-judge panel says North Carolina is not allowed to hold elections for its 13 members of the U.S. House of Representatives until it changes the districts that they are campaigning to represent. NC legislators on Tuesday said they would ask the Supreme Court to intervene, but there’s no guarantee the justices will do so.
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The News & Observer has been tracking the ramifications of this ruling and the answers to questions surrounding it. If you have questions that aren’t answered here, email them to reporters Will Doran at firstname.lastname@example.org and Brian Murphy at email@example.com.
This article will be updated online as we answer more questions, so check back for updates.
What does the ruling say?
The judges found unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering behind the districts for North Carolina’s 13 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s different from racial gerrymandering, which in the past has also gotten North Carolina districts thrown out as unconstitutional.
Specifically, the judges in this case found that the state’s Congressional districts are so tilted in favor of Republicans that it deprives non-Republicans of their First Amendment rights and diminishes the power of their votes.
“The Constitution does not allow elected officials to enact laws that distort the marketplace of political ideas so as to intentionally favor certain political beliefs, parties, or candidates and disfavor others,” the judges wrote.
The court ruling notes that Republican politicians won 10 of the 13 Congressional districts under this plan in 2016, even though statewide the Republican candidates won only 53.22 percent of the total votes.
What happens now?
We wait. The judges gave the two sides until Friday to offer their plans for how to proceed in November, and they also offered a few suggestions of their own.
Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said on Tuesday said they would ask the Supreme Court to intervene and stop the ruling from going into effect.
What could the Supreme Court do?
The Supreme Court could take the case up officially, or it could dodge the question and send it back to the original three-judge panel for more work. That already happened once in this case, as well as in partisan gerrymandering cases from Wisconsin and Maryland, when the Supreme Court in June ordered the trial court judges to take a second look at the three cases.
In North Carolina’s case, the trial court judges have now come to roughly the same conclusion as they did the first time, in January. It’s unclear how the Supreme Court might react to that.
What happens if there’s a tie at the Supreme Court?
If the Supreme Court does take this case up sometime in the future, it’s possible there could be a tie since the court only has eight justices at the moment. Former Justice Anthony Kennedy retired earlier this year and his seat has not yet been filled.
If there is a tie, the most recent decision in the case would stand.
What did the three judges suggest on Monday?
They said North Carolina legislators could redraw the maps very quickly — and offered some already-drawn maps as possible replacements — and that the state could throw out the results of the spring primary and use the November election as the do-over with the new districts and then hold a general election soon after.
Or alternatively, they said the state could forgo new primaries and just continue with the general election in November using the current candidates, but running for the new districts.
Is there a precedent for canceling primaries?
The judges noted that the state legislature already canceled different primary elections for judicial races earlier this year — which was the subject of a separate lawsuit — so therefore “the General Assembly has concluded that, for at least some partisan offices, primary elections are unnecessary.”
What are the national implications?
If the state does try to hold new primaries, and there is also a “Blue Wave” of voters in other states this November that sweep a number of Republican incumbents from office, the whole country could potentially be waiting on North Carolina to decide which party is going to hold a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next two years.
So are North Carolina’s 2018 elections going to be postponed?
No matter what happens with this case, there will still be an election in November. We just don’t know yet what exactly is going to be on the ballot.
Voters will be deciding on whether to approve new amendments to the state constitution — although exactly which amendments will be on the ballot is still the subject of other lawsuits — and there are other elections for judges and state legislators that will still go on no matter what happens.
What about candidates who lost in the primaries?
North Carolina’s closest primary election for a Congressional seat was the race between Republican incumbent Robert Pittenger and Baptist preacher Mark Harris. Both men are from Charlotte and were running to represent a district that includes Charlotte and the central-southern part of the state.
Pittenger lost to Harris and Harris now faces a difficult general election against Democrat Dan McCready, who is leading in fundraising and has the 9th District leaning blue, according to the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Rep. Walter Jones also won a closely contested primary against two challengers including Scott Dacey, who was challenging Jones’ long tenure representing parts of Eastern North Carolina in Congress.
On Tuesday, Dacey said he had been talking about the ruling with his wife. He didn’t rule out a second try at unseating Jones, whom he has deemed insufficiently pro-Trump.
“We’re going to wait and see what happens here,” Dacey said. “I don’t think all this is going to take long. We’re going to withhold any judgment.”
Don’t we have a history of gerrymandering?
Yes, and both political parties have been guilty, although in the past the issue has typically been racial gerrymandering instead of partisan gerrymandering. State legislators are in charge of drawing the lines used to elect both themselves and the state’s members of Congress, and it turns out politicians like having their side win.
The state’s current Congressional districts were drawn in 2016, following a different court case that found the previous set of districts were racially gerrymandered, and therefore also unconstitutional.
Those racially gerrymandered lines were drawn in 2011, just after Republicans took control of the state legislature. They had to draw new lines since districts have to be re-drawn after every U.S. Census, which happens every 10 years.
That means — unless there is a change in the way districts are drawn — the state legislature will be back in 2021 drawing new lines.
The government watchdog group Common Cause, along with the North Carolina League of Women Voters, sued Bob Rucho and other legislative leaders over the maps. Rucho is now out of politics but was at the time a powerful state senator, who had been instrumental in creating the maps.
A Republican from the Charlotte suburbs, Rucho retired from the legislature in 2016, and mounted a failed campaign to return to the General Assembly earlier this year in the Republican primary for a newly created district — the symptom of redistricting forced by a previous court ruling that the state’s legislative districts were also unconstitutional.
Regardless of his retired status, is still a defendant in this case. His co-defendants are fellow Republican legislative leaders Rep. David Lewis, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger.
Who were the judges?
The ruling was a 2-1 decision in front of a panel of federal judges. James Wynn, a Barack Obama appointee, wrote the majority opinion. He was joined by William Earl Britt, a Jimmy Carter appointee who has recently been in the news as the judge hearing many of the lawsuits against the Murphy Brown hog farming company over its operations in Eastern North Carolina.
William O’Steen Jr. cast the lone ’No’ vote. He wrote a partial dissent that said he agreed with some of Wynn’s ruling and disagreed with other parts. He is a George W. Bush appointee who became a federal judge when he replaced his father, a George H.W. Bush appointee.