New congressional maps to be drawn for 2020 elections in North Carolina

Republican lawmakers have begun the process of drawing new congressional maps for the 2020 elections.

Lawmakers are redrawing the districts after a court said last month the maps for U.S. House were likely unconstitutional. They already redrew many of the state’s legislative maps earlier this year, after losing a different gerrymandering lawsuit.

In a Tuesday committee meeting at the General Assembly’s building in Raleigh, 18 Republican and Democratic members of the state legislature started on some of the early procedural decisions. They’ll be back Wednesday at 10 a.m., in a meeting that will be livestreamed on the legislature’s website.

In the past, Republican Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, a top redistricting leader, has been open that Republicans drew the maps to make sure Republicans would likely win 10 of North Carolina’s 13 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

But late last month a court said those maps were likely unconstitutional due to that lopsided partisan edge, and on Tuesday Lewis said they would draw the new maps with a different philosophy.

“There are no predetermined outcomes,” he said.

This newest redistricting process is happening on rare legal grounds. In early September, a panel of three judges from around the state ruled many of the districts used to elect the 170 members of the General Assembly were unconstitutional. The judges found that the lines had been drawn by Republican legislators to suppress the power of Democratic voters and inflate the power of Republican voters. Legislators responded by redrawing state House and Senate districts with unprecedented transparency.

Soon after that ruling came down, Democrats sued again, using many of the same legal arguments to challenge the lines used to elect North Carolina’s 13 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. In late October, the same panel of judges wrote that the legislature appeared likely to lose that lawsuit as well. While lawmakers could continue to trial, the judges wrote, they instead urged them to just redraw the maps and skip the trial.

The legislature agreed, announcing plans to return for a redistricting session, which started with Tuesday’s committee work before the entire legislature returns Nov. 13.

It’s unclear how long into November the redistricting process will last, but lawmakers want to be finished soon.

“We’re hoping to vote a map, whatever the outcome of this committee is, early next week,” Republican Sen. Paul Newton said Tuesday.

Where to start?

The biggest choice the committee will make early on is how to get started. Democrats want to simply start from scratch, while Republicans want to use theoretical districts that a bipartisan group of former judges created several years ago for the advocacy group Common Cause NC. Lewis said members of the committee can draw up whatever proposed base maps they want on Wednesday, and the committee will likely vote on which base maps to use on Thursday.

Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause NC, said the group stands by that mock map but added that it was never meant to be used in this way. Democratic Rep. Robert Reives, the deputy minority leader in the NC House, said he opposes using that map as a baseline because it was created using racial and partisan data, which might lead to legal issues if the legislature were to copy it now.

Mary Wills Bode, executive director of the group North Carolinians For Redistricting Reform, said that however the legislature chooses to start, there will be plenty of potential stumbling blocks along the way. Bode said Republican lawmakers were correct to note Tuesday that the rules are different for congressional redistricting than legislative redistricting, in ways that make congressional redistricting more complicated.

“It’s like a Jenga tower,” she said, referring to the popular game in which if players mess up even one of many building blocks, the whole structure could collapse.

Delayed elections?

The period for candidates to file to run in the 2020 elections starts Dec. 2 and ends Dec. 20. And while congressional candidates don’t have to live in the district they’re running for, they still typically prefer to run for office representing their home and neighbors.

If the new maps aren’t done in time for candidate filing — or if they are, but the judges don’t approve them — then it’s possible the March 3 primaries for U.S. House could be pushed later into the year.

Republican Sen. Ralph Hise of Spruce Pine, who has led past redistricting efforts, will chair the newest redistricting committee, too. In an email announcing the Tuesday meeting, he expressed frustration with the courts but said he’s motivated to finish quickly and keep the primaries on schedule.

“Frankly, I’m waiting on a judge somewhere to tell me which version of which Constitution to follow,” Hise said. “I know what I think the law is, but sometimes that doesn’t have any bearing on what a judge might order. We’re going to move forward and begin the redistricting process because the filing period starts in less than one month, whether under the current map or a new one. We intend to keep the state on schedule and not cram the election process.

“But we’re in a difficult place with no clear direction on which way to go,” he added.

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Will Doran reports on North Carolina politics, with a focus on state employees and agencies. In 2016 he started The News & Observer’s fact-checking partnership, PolitiFact NC, and before that he reported on local governments around the Triangle. Contact him at wdoran@newsobserver.com or (919) 836-2858.