Editor’s note: This article first posted at 11:04 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2016. It was updated at 12:30 p.m., Feb. 20, to reflect developments.
The N.C. Senate approved a plan Thursday for a new state congressional map while the N.C. House voted for a plan to move the primary elections for the U.S. House of Representatives to June 7, while adopting a new district map affecting all parts of the state.
Each chamber voted Friday to approve the measure the other passed the day before along mostly party lines, including among Western North Carolina representatives.
“While I’ll wait until after the committee meeting and debate on the floor,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady, R-Henderson, in an email to Carolina Public Press late Thursday, “I expect to support the plan since I understand it is essentially what I supported when the Joint Committee (on Redistricting) recommended it.”
Republicans pushed the measures in answer to a federal court ruling earlier this month that rejected the existing districts as having been based too heavily on the race of voting age residents.
Following a series of simultaneous statewide public hearings on Monday, in which speakers offered district map advice that mostly broke down along party loyalties, Republicans floated their new map, in which data from the 2010 Census was applied without looking at race.
The new plan would meet the court deadline to produce new maps. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the judges will be OK with the results. Democrats, who generally applauded the federal judges’ decision, have questioned whether the new plan can pass constitutional muster.
Republicans have appealed the court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and had hoped that Chief Justice John Roberts would issue an emergency stay. But with time running out on the lower court’s deadline and no announcement on a stay, it appeared the high court wouldn’t opt to get involved at this time, so legislators moved to act.
This suspicion about the high court proved well-founded. Late Friday, Roberts denied the stay request. That doesn’t mean the situation is out of the hands of the federal courts. The federal panel that threw out the current maps could also reject the new ones. And the Supreme Court could still decide to hear the case, despite declining the request for a stay.
Adjusting primaries, filings
Creating a new map with candidates filed and primaries set for March 15 is forcing some last-minute adaptation. The House-approved schedule plan would move congressional primaries to June 7, while leaving primaries for other offices in March. That includes presidential primaries.
To help offset potentially steep costs to counties being asked to run elections on a separate date, the plan would cancel all runoff elections for 2016.
With new districts, existing candidates for congressional seats would have to refile under a new time window, between March 16 and March 25, while new candidates could also file.
In theory, any currently filed candidate could run in the same district because state law doesn’t require members of Congress to reside in the district they represent. For example, a candidate who lives on the coast filed under the existing map to run in the 10th District, in the southwestern Piedmont and southeastern mountains. But generally, not living in a district is considered a disadvantage.
Just in case the Supreme Court still acts quickly to hear the case and set aside the lower court ruling before the March 15 primary, the plan would then allow elections with the candidates who have already filed to continue with the old maps and the June 7 extra primary would be cancelled. Votes for U.S. House on absentee ballots that are cast for the candidates running under the old plan would count only if the court does step in. Otherwise, they would be thrown out.
Republicans who crafted the plan didn’t disagree that it was potentially confusing, but the blamed the timing of the federal intervention in the state’s elections.
“There’s a chaos still in this process, and the courts have given us that,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, according to WRAL.
Generally the Republican legislators controlling the process said they favored more compact districts that split fewer counties and precincts. That could be seen as a nod to speakers at Monday’s hearings, many of whom called for less gerrymandering by both parties.
Democrats did not necessarily oppose this principle, but have objected to various aspects of the new plan, including that it would place two Democratic incumbents in Republican-leaning districts with sitting incumbents, while creating new supposedly Democratic-leaning districts in Mecklenburg County and across rural areas of the central Piedmont that would have no incumbents.
The existing map was drawn by the General Assembly’s newly elected Republican majority in 2011 following years of Democratic control of the decennial process.
The heart of the existing plan dates back to the 1991 plan that first created two African-American majority districts for the purpose of ensuring a black voice in Congress. The result was the election of the first black members of Congress from North Carolina since Reconstruction.
That plan was adjusted in small ways following legal challenges in the 1990s and the 2000 census, which added a congressional seat to the state. But Democrats accused Republicans of taking gerrymandering to new extremes in the 2011 plan. Republicans have mostly denied doing anything except what Democrats were doing before — drawing maps to benefit the party that North Carolina voters put in power.
While the practice has often been criticized, gerrymandering maps for partisan advantage is not illegal.
The new map
The new map would create several substantial changes in Western North Carolina, with more dramatic changes in other portions of the state.
As currently, WNC would include portions of Districts 5, 10 and 11. Three Republican members of Congress, Reps. Virginia Foxx, Patrick McHenry and Mark Meadows, are incumbents in those respective districts.
In Buncombe County, the most populous in WNC, the line splitting Districts 10 and 11 would be redrawn. Avery County would move from District 11 to District 5.
While District 11 would be unchanged outside of WNC, District 10 would lose a small section of Iredell County it previously included to District 9, and would be affected by a redrawn split of Catawba County with District 5 that would move most of the city of Hickory to District 10.
The eastern portion of District 5 would change drastically. Where the district boundary currently meanders through areas of several Piedmont Triad counties, it would lose sections that were in northern Iredell, Davie, Rowan and Davidson counties, while picking up all of Surry and Stokes counties for the first time.
District 5 would also now encompass all of Forsyth County, including some heavily Democratic areas of Winston-Salem that had been part of the 12th District, one of two districts that the court specifically rejected for being based heavily on race.
Republicans have said they believe the new districts will be more competitive in some cases, but think the three in WNC will continue to favor Republicans. As before, three of the state’s 13 districts are expected to favor Democrats. Whether these perceptions of district loyalties will hold remains to be seen.
One of the most interesting situations is developing at the state’s center where an incumbent Republican has said he may chose to run outside of his newly assigned district. Although it’s been Democrats who have been most critical of the new plan, U.S. Rep. George Holding, a Wake County Republican, has told news media in the Triangle that he is considering a run against a fellow Republican, 2nd District Congresswoman Renee Ellmers of Harnett County, under the new plan.
Holding lives in the newly created 4th District, but he see’s it as a left-leaning district that contains few of the voters who supported him and will likely favor U.S. Rep. David Price, a Wake County Democrat. Most of Holding’s voters, he said, are now in Ellmers’ district.
The scenario could be what legislative conservatives intended all along since Ellmers, though elected with tea party support, has been at odds with the GOP’s most conservative elements at times.
A comparison of the existing Congressional district plan and the new one for each of the 18 WNC counties follows:
- Watauga: District 5 under both plans.
- Avery: District 5 under new plan. Currently District 11.
- Mitchell: District 11 under both plans.
- Yancey: District 11 under both plans.
- McDowell: District 11 under both plans.
- Madison: District 11 under both plans.
- Buncombe: Split between Districts 10 and 11 under both plans, but new plan would have a less meandering boundary line.
- Rutherford: District 10 under both plans.
- Polk: District 10 under both plans.
- Henderson: District 11 under both plans.
- Transylvania: District 11 under both plans.
- Haywood: District 11 under both plans.
- Swain: District 11 under both plans.
- Jackson: District 11 under both plans.
- Macon: District 11 under both plans.
- Graham: District 11 under both plans.
- Clay: District 11 under both plans.
- Cherokee: District 11 under both plans.