As the candidate filing period for the 2016 elections opens Tuesday, some contend that Democrats’ odds of gaining seats in the state house and Congress are shrinking against an unexpected challenger — the court calendar.
Five years have passed since new legislative and congressional district maps were drawn by the Republican-led General Assembly.
Voters and organizations have challenged the reshaped districts in state and federal court as racial gerrymanders designed to weaken the influence of black voters. But those cases have yet to be resolved, making it possible that another election cycle could occur before the courts decide whether the districts are legal.
“That seems to be a fair enough question given the speed at which the state Supreme Court is moving,” said Sen. Dan Blue, a Democrat from Raleigh. “It involves the most fundamental of all rights under democracy, yet there seems to be no urgency.”
Last week, a three-judge panel in federal court rejected a request to delay the opening of the candidate filing period from voters challenging nine state Senate districts and 19 state House districts. Sandra Little Covington and 26 other voters are scheduled to go to trial in April. Had the General Assembly not moved the state’s primaries from May to March, their case might have been resolved before voters selected their party candidates.
In issuing their order, the three-judge panel noted they were not commenting on the merits of the arguments. Instead, they said that attorneys for Covington and others had not persuaded them that disrupting the election cycle was necessary.
A different lawsuit filed in federal court challenging U.S. congressional districts in North Carolina was tried several weeks ago. A ruling is pending.
An additional lawsuit was filed in state court by former state Rep. Margaret Dickson and others against Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Mecklenburg County who helped lead the 2011 redistricting, and others. It has been parked at the state Supreme Court since April.
The U.S. Supreme Court ordered the justices to reconsider a December 2014 ruling on the case that upheld the maps as legal. The U.S. justices offered little instruction when sending the N.C. case back for further review — only that it should be reviewed in the context of a decision on a similar Alabama case.
In the Alabama case, the justices split along ideological lines said the courts must take another look at whether the legislature relied too heavily on race when it redrew the state’s voting districts in a way that black leaders say limited minority voting power. U.S. Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote for the majority, said the Alabama lower court should have reviewed claims of racial gerrymandering on a district-by-district level, not just statewide. He also said the court didn’t apply the right test when it found that race wasn’t the primary motivating factor.
When the N.C. justices heard arguments in August, Thomas Farr, a private attorney representing the state legislature, argued that North Carolina’s “legislature applied, perhaps, the most complicated formula in the U.S. for drawing legislative districts.”
Farr further added that North Carolina’s high court “already held that political consideration and incumbency protection were factors that went into the drawing of these districts.” He noted that Rucho, and Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett County who helped shepherd the 2011 map drawing, had “issued a statement where they said they understood that drawing majority black districts would make the adjoining districts more competitive for Republicans.” Protections and incumbency protections played a role in drawing these districts.”
Though the courts have allowed political parties to draw districts for political advantage, they prohibit racial gerrymandering as a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
“I finally heard from Mr. Farr what he means by politics,” Edwin Speas, an attorney for the map challengers, said at the close of the August hearing. “When a legislative body uses race to accomplish their political goals, its actions are subject to the 14th Amendment. Politics is no defense to the 14th Amendment.”
It is unclear when the N.C. Supreme Court will rule in the case. The next scheduled date for rulings to be released in Dec. 18, three days before the close of the candidate filing period.
As questions remain about whether the districts were legally drawn, advocates for non-partisan redistricting are pushing for a new process that might result in less protracted court cases.
“I really believe what they’ve done is lawful,” Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor and Republican. Vinroot has joined forces with former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker, a Democrat, to have an independent commission or nonpartisan legislative staff tweak district lines every 10 years after the U.S. Census reports show population shifts.
Vinroot said he did not think his proposal was “a cure-all” but it could result in fewer lawsuits.
“Obviously, it’s a very slow and ineffective process if we’re entering a third election under this,” Meeker agreed.