Wake County voters could vote this fall for members of the Board of Commissioners and school board under election maps that are drawn by a federal judge.
State election officials raised concerns Monday about their ability to draw new districts for the Wake Board of Commissioners and school board for the Nov. 8 election. But election officials said they’d do so if ordered.
“We’re only prepared to act if nobody else does and if we’re ordered by a court to do so, a federal court having jurisdiction,” said Grant Whitney, chairman of the State Board of Elections. “This is in my opinion the duty of the legislature to take care of this.”
But with the General Assembly not scheduled to return until January, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore asked Monday that the maps that were declared unconstitutional by a federal appeal courts still be used this fall.
U.S. Chief District Court James C. Dever III had given Berger, Moore and the State Board of Elections until Monday to tell him whether they planned to draw new Wake maps. Dever is charged with carrying out a July 1 federal appeals court ruling that tossed the state legislature’s maps for Wake County.
Dever said in his July 8 court order that he’d draw the new maps if the General Assembly and State Board of Elections didn’t act.
But in a response filed Monday, the plaintiffs say Dever “does not have the legal authority to impose” his own plans. They want Dever to reinstate the election maps that the school board and commissioners had adopted in 2011 before they were replaced by the state legislature.
In 2013, the Republican-led General Assembly redrew the lines for all nine Wake school board seats, turning two into regional districts that each covers about half the county. In 2015, state legislators changed the Wake commissioner lines to match those used by the school board.
Left-leaning individuals and groups challenged the new maps in court. In February, Dever dismissed the lawsuit, but he was overturned by the Fourth Circuit.
After the 2-1 appellate decision was announced, Dever issued his Monday deadline.
In a response filed Monday, attorneys for Berger and Moore tell Dever it’s too late for the General Assembly to draw up new maps this year. Instead both lawmakers propose that Dever allow the contested maps to be used in November with legislators adopting new Wake maps next year.
“Today we’ve asked Judge Dever to allow the elections for Wake County Commission and School Board to proceed under the current maps since changing the elections at the 11th hour would create chaos and confusion – and because the case has not reached its final resolution in court,” Berger and Moore said in a joint written statement.
“There is a well-established precedent in North Carolina for elections being allowed to move forward on schedule when changing the districts too close to the election would result in chaos and confusion.”
The State Board of Elections discussed Dever’s order Monday.
State law authorizes the State Board of Elections “to make reasonable interim rules and regulations” when county elections are declared unconstitutional. Kim Strach, executive director of the state board, said that authority has never been used to draw maps and that any districts lines they make would expire in March.
“You could have elected folks not sure of what districts they’d be representing,” Strach said.
Strach also said her staff doesn’t have the software to create new districts or the expertise to do so.
Those concerns were conveyed in a letter Friday to Dever. State board member James Baker said it shouldn’t be interpreted as a “volunteering letter,” but board member Maja Kricker said she felt the board could draw the maps in a nonpartisan manner.
“I would welcome the opportunity to help the citizens of Wake County,” Kricker said.
While the parties work through Dever’s order, a separate but related battle is being fought in court.
The appellate panel’s order was stayed Thursday until the Fourth Circuit rules on the request from the Wake County Board of Elections, which is the defendant, to have all 15 judges hear the case.
Brian Ratledge, chairman of the Wake board, resigned Sunday to pursue other professional opportunities, he said. Ratledge had voted in favor of appealing.
The plaintiffs have asked the court to immediately implement the appellate ruling.
Berger and Moore have asked to be named as defendants in the case.
Time is running out for election officials. In a response filed Monday, the Wake board of elections told Dever it needs to know which lines to use by Aug. 10, which is the deadline for write-in candidates to petition for space on the ballot.
Wake officials also said there’s not enough time to hold a new primary for the county commissioner races.
“It’s a very, very difficult situation,” said Mark Ezzell, the lone member of the Wake County Board of Elections who voted against appealing the court ruling. “All of this puts the citizens, the voters, the candidates of Wake County in a tough spot.”