The state House on Friday gave final approval to new congressional district boundaries drawn to satisfy a court order to correct two districts that a panel of federal judges considered racial gerrymanders.
Approval came hours before U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts late Friday declined to grant the state’s request to halt the panel’s order, meaning any election in those districts are halted until new maps are approved. The order issued after 10 p.m. was brief. “The application for stay presented to The Chief Justice and by him referred to the Court is denied,” Roberts’ order said.
Also on Friday, the state Senate approved moving the congressional primary election to June.
The state’s March 15 primary election will proceed as planned – but votes cast for congressional candidates will not be counted. The congressional primary, with new districts, would be on June 7.
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State Elections Director Kim Strach, acknowledging the potential for voter confusion, urged people to vote for their preferred congressional candidate in both elections. “Vote the whole ballot and let us worry about what will count,” she said in a statement issued after the bill passed both chambers.
In redrafting the congressional districts, Republicans decided on a plan they said does not consider race.
Democrats said that was the wrong approach.
Race should still be considered in drawing district lines, Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, said Friday in the House. “What the committee has done, they have taken race out of the equation totally and completely.”
The House later gave final approval to the plan with a 65-43 vote along party lines. The federal court panel would need to approve it before it’s used.
As part of the plan to comply with the federal court’s ruling in the absence of a stay, the shift of the primaries includes having no runoffs in any races – the candidate receiving the most votes would automatically win the primary and would not have to reach the 40 percent level that is now the law.
A new filing period of March 16 to 25 will be opened for congressional candidates.
The Senate removed a minor provision having to do with which maps to use in naming presidential delegates to the Electoral College. The effect is that whichever maps are in effect at the time will be used. The House concurred.
Some Senate Democrats said the election plan moved too quickly, and that the legislature should give the courts more time to determine whether the maps are constitutional.
A separate lawsuit challenging the way state legislative districts were drawn is pending before another federal three-judge panel.
In the House debate on the map, members were conscious that they were creating a court record as much as they were debating the merits of the plan.
Democrats repeatedly asked about the GOP redistricting expert whom Republican legislators hired, when he started working on the new map, and whether he would be paid with state money.
Republicans responded with questions about whether Democrats were working on their own maps, suggesting that Democrats were withholding their ideas because they preferred to present them to the court.
“You elected not to offer input into the map and are preparing instead to offer maps that you developed to the court,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican and redistricting committee chairman. “You declined to constructively participate in the legislative process, preferring to participate in the judicial process.”
New primary elections bill
House Bill 2 of this extra session represents Republican legislators’ attempt to deal with the federal court ruling that found two congressional districts illegally drawn racial gerrymanders. It removes the congressional election from the March 15 primary. It would:
▪ Establish June 7 as the date for the U.S. House primary.
▪ Open a filing period for the June 7 primary from noon March 16 to noon March 25.
▪ Declare that U.S. House candidates must be affiliated with a political party for at least 75 days before filing a notice of candidacy in order to run in that party’s primary.
▪ Declare that candidates can run in both the March 15 primary and the June 7 congressional primary; but if they win both primaries they must withdraw from one within a week of the election results being certified.
▪ Declare that candidates who have already filed for the U.S. House primary will receive a return of their filing fee. They will have to refile if they still want to run.
▪ Eliminate runoff primaries this year. The candidate with the most votes wins, rather than the top two candidates having a runoff if no one gets 40 percent of the vote. There are 13 statewide contests that could have resulted in runoffs, in addition to an unknown number of local elections.
▪ Put other elections that would have been held on the date of the second primary, which would have been May 24, on the June 7 ballot. At least two judicial elections fall into that category.
▪ Authorize the state Board of Elections to issue temporary orders and directives as needed to carry out the 2016 U.S. House primary.
▪ Declare that any votes cast for congressional candidates on the March 15 ballot, which has already been sent to absentee voters, will not be certified, and the results of that vote would not be a public record.