Politics & Government

Too late to redraw NC’s congressional districts for 2018 election, plaintiffs agree

It is too late to redraw North Carolina’s congressional districts for the 2018 election despite a court ruling them unconstitutional, the winners in the state’s partisan gerrymandering case said Friday.

The state chapters of Common Cause and The League of Women Voters won their gerrymandering case on Monday, but on Friday they wrote to the federal judges who had ruled for them that the November election is too soon to try to draw new maps.

“Attempting to impose a new districting plan in time for the 2018 election would be too disruptive and potentially counterproductive,” they wrote, adding that they reached their conclusion “with utmost frustration and regret.”

However, the three-judge panel isn’t required to use their suggestion, or the suggestion from the defendants in the case, which was also filed Friday.

The defendants — who are several of North Carolina’s top Republican legislators, including House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger — have asked that the Supreme Court halt this ruling, but they also gave their suggestion for how to proceed if that doesn’t happen.

“This out-of-control court should stay its ruling until the Supreme Court can review its unprecedented decision,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County and a top legislative map-maker. “Voters deserve orderly elections.”

Like Common Cause, the legislators also voiced concerns about redrawing the maps so quickly, then updating the voter rolls in time. The only way it could be possible, they said, would be if the state could undo the results of the primary election earlier this spring, take the races for the U.S. House of Representatives off the November ballot and instead vote on those races on Dec. 18 — a week before Christmas. They’d also open the Dec. 18 election to anyone who wanted to run.

However, Common Cause and the League of Women voters addressed a situation like that in their brief, saying they would oppose an election with no primary because “an open election would turn more on how many candidates decide to run than on the substantive positions of the two candidates.”

The plaintiffs also said they didn’t think it would make sense to hold a separate election after the November election, which is still needed for other state and local races.

Holding a separate election could help Republicans — and the entire reason these lines were ruled unconstitutional in the first place, the plaintiffs wrote, is that the system was set up to unfairly favor Republicans and deprive other voters and candidates of their rights.

“Holding elections at non-standard times tends to depress turnout, particularly of young and minority voters,” they wrote. “And while potentially lower turnout, standing alone, is not a reason to delay implementing a remedy for a constitutional violation, because these populations tend to support the Democratic Party, it is entirely possible that this proposal would actually hurt, rather than help, the electoral prospects of the Democratic Party — exactly what the Legislative Defendants sought to do through the unconstitutional 2016 plan.”

The court ruling Monday was hundreds of pages long, but it focused on one key statistic: North Carolina has 13 seats in the House of Representatives, and in the 2016 elections, Republicans won 53 percent of the vote but took 10 of those 13 seats. That was due in large part to the way that the maps had been drawn to cram large amounts of Democratic voters into the other three districts.

The current maps were drawn after a different set of maps were found to be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. Both sets were drawn by Republican lawmakers in the state legislature, which has control of drawing the district maps used to elect members of the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the state legislature.

“Unfortunately, the General Assembly’s decision to draw a biased and gerrymandered map in 2016 allowed them to run out the clock and force North Carolinians to vote in unconstitutional districts one more time,” Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina said in a statement. “Although justice will be delayed one more election cycle, we will keep up the fight for fair representation here in North Carolina and across the country when this case heads to the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The plaintiffs said they expected the Attorney General Josh Stein to file a brief with the court agreeing that “the risk of disruption and voter confusion is too great” to redraw districts at this point.

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The plaintiffs had asked that the court rule 12 of North Carolina’s 13 districts — all but the 5th District — and the entire 2016 Plan as a whole “unconstitutional, null and void” and that the court stop the state from conducting any primary or general elections under the current map after Nov. 6.

If the judges don’t accept the plaintiffs’ plan to let the elections go forward using the current maps, they could use one of the remedies they suggested in their ruling, including having the current candidates run in November in newly drawn districts. If that happens, there will be a fight over who gets to draw the maps.

Normally that’s the legislature’s job, but the plaintiffs want the authority given instead to an outside expert, they wrote Friday, and on Monday the judges did note that they planned to hire one just in case they “conclude the General Assembly is not entitled to such an opportunity or we conclude that the remedial plan enacted by the General Assembly fails to remedy the constitutional violation.”

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC; Will Doran: 919-836-2858; Twitter @Will_Doran
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