Morgan Murray and his 6-year-old son, Blue, check in at the polling station at Isaac Dickson Elementary in Asheville. Local races in Buncombe County included primaries for county commission, district attorney, clerk of superior court and district court judge. Colby Rabon/Carolina Public Press

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This article looked ahead at the cost of potentially moving congressional primaries. A later plan to do exactly that is discussed here.

If a recent court ruling forces North Carolina to conduct its congressional primary separately from other primaries this spring, most counties could have trouble handling the additional cost, a state elections spokesperson told Carolina Public Press on Tuesday.

A federal judicial panel ruled Feb. 5 that race played too much of a factor in drawing the state’s congressional districts, specifically in two districts that have been drawn since the 1990s to ensure that an African-American who is a Democrat has the best chance of winning there. Changes that the new Republican legislative majority made in 2011 packed even more black voters into those districts, making surrounding districts predominately white and more likely to elect Republicans.

Federal courts have previously said lawmakers can draw districts to aid parties, which sometimes results in packing racial minority groups into some districts, but race cannot be the determining factor in drawing districts.

The Feb. 5 ruling would require these districts to be redrawn in advance of this year’s elections, but the state has appealed, seeking a stay and a ultimately a reversal. According to media reports, Chief Justice John Roberts asked Wednesday that plaintiff’s attorneys respond to the state’s request for an emergency stay. They have until 3 p.m. on Tuesday to do that.

This cuts the decision close since the federal panel ordered an immediate redrawing of the congressional districts with legislators due to submit new maps for review on Feb. 19. In case they do have to draw news districts by that deadline, legislators have set up a joint committee on redistricting and scheduled public hearings across the state for 10 a.m. Monday, including one at UNC-Asheville.

Complications and costs

The situation is problematic in part because absentee voting is already underway for all North Carolina primary elections. Election day is set for March 15, much earlier than in past years. The purpose of moving up the vote was to ensure that North Carolina voters can participate in the presidential primary process while those races are likely to remain meaningful and not after the winners have been determined.

While the state is appealing the full decision, it asked the judicial panel to stay its ruling for now, since votes have already been cast. The judges rejected that request Tuesday afternoon. The state is now asking the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a stay while it considers an appeal of the decision.

However, if there’s no stay, whether the districts have to be redrawn would depend on the outcome of that appeal. Even if the case were fast-tracked and the state prevailed, it’s unlikely a decision could be handed down in time to preserve congressional primary elections on March 15 using the current districts.

This case is also closely related to similar lawsuits over the districts drawn for legislative seats, though no federal ruling has been made in those cases so far. The North Carolina Supreme Court declined Thursday to hear a challenge involving North Carolina House of Representatives districts. That leaves the avenue open for the plaintiffs in that case to also appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. But at this point, the March 15 primaries for legislative seats don’t appear to be in jeopardy, barring a sudden court order to the contrary. Even so, contingencies related to the cost of holding separate congressional primaries could put the date for all primaries in doubt.

State elections officials are looking at those contingencies. They’re not necessarily pleased with what they’ve learned so far.

“This afternoon we conducted a survey of all 100 counties to find out if they have sufficient funds in their budgets to cover a stand-alone congressional primary,” Jackie Hyland, public information officer for the State Board of Elections, wrote to CPP in an email late Tuesday. “As of right now 56 counties responded and only four counties, Mecklenburg, Pitt, Brunswick and Catawba counties, say they have sufficient funds.”

With 100 counties in the state, that’s more than half the counties saying they lack the financial resources to conduct a separate election for U.S. House.

Hyland said the board has not decided on what course it will take if justices don’t issue a stay. Prior to the rejection of a stay by the federal judicial panel, she said the state is “in a holding pattern.”

Any result that doesn’t include a stay will lead to additional complications for ballots that have already been cast. Should they be thrown out entirely? Should those voters be allowed to vote anew only for Congress but not for other contests? How would those voters be identified at the polls if the congressional vote isn’t held separately?

There could also be issues for candidates. Some may have filed for seats in districts in which they will no longer reside and have spend substantial funds campaigning. Should they be compensated in some way? How would a new filing period for congressional candidates work?

And another shoe to drop could be looming: If the congressional maps are deemed invalid, then the courts are likely to also reject the legislative districts. What happens if a ruling is handed down on those during this election cycle?

Meanwhile, elections officials are advising voters who are completing absentee ballots to fill out their entire ballots and turn them in. Until they have more information, they expect that policy to continue.

WNC impact

Neither of two congressional districts in question in last week’s ruling is located in Western North Carolina, but the situation still remains likely to affect the three districts that are here if the districts are redrawn. The impact would result from moving voters between a district that’s largely made up of urban voters in major Piedmont population centers and other surrounding districts.

This could ultimately lead to small shifts in population blocs and district territory for the districts currently represented by Virginia Fox and Patrick McHenry. Fox’s district is adjacent to portions of the Piedmont Triad and McHenry’s to portions of the Charlotte metro-area. Both of those urban regions include large population blocs within one of the districts the court rejected.

Changes to Mark Meadows‘ district, located entirely in the west, appear less likely. But even that can’t be ruled out as legislators could go to extreme measures to preserve their partisan edge while stepping away from the objections raised by the court.

As CPP has recently reported, the state’s population has shifted substantially since the 2010 census under which the existing district maps were drawn. That’s expected to result in more diluted representation for WNC counties after the 2020 census. But if maps are redrawn now, lawmakers would be expected to use data from the old census, as out of date as it might be.

Any new districts that are drawn would affect elections between now and 2020. Regardless of what happens now, new districts would be scheduled in 2021 and would come into play for 2022 elections.

Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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