Sen. Ralph Hise reviews 2017 budget documents ahead of the General Assembly's passage of the measure. Kirk Ross / Carolina Public Press

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RALEIGH — The North Carolina General Assembly has less than a month to draw new legislative districts after a federal court issued an order Monday afternoon setting in motion a new round of redistricting.

A three-judge panel for the Middle District in Greensboro set out a timetable that calls for the legislature to establish criteria for the new maps along with a set of proposals by August 21 and have a new set of maps and statistics to the court by 5 p.m. September 1. The court can extend that deadline 14 days if the legislature meets all its August 21 requirements.

Given reviews, possible challenges and other legal actions, the process could extend into December, but the schedule is far shorter than the one proposed last week by a legislative committee.

The action in Covington v. State of North Carolina, one of the key challenges among several regarding the state’s 2011 redistricting, follows a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, affirming a lower court decision that 28 legislative districts were racially gerrymandered and unconstitutional under the equal protection clause. The high court vacated a Middle District ruling that new districts be drawn and new elections be held this year and sent the case back to the lower court for a new remedy. The new order is more than three months shorter than a timeline preferred by the legislative leadership, but is longer than the two weeks requested by attorneys for the plaintiffs.

The joint House and Senate Select Committee on Redistricting, which met last week for the first time since redrawing congressional districts in February 2016, proposed a much longer timeline, including a statewide series of public hearings and an initial set of maps in November.

Plaintiffs in the Covington case argued that since it has been 50 weeks since the court first ruled the maps illegal, the legislature has had ample time to prepare new ones.

In Monday’s order and last week at a hearing in Greensboro, judges questioned the extended timeline agreeing in principle with plaintiffs’ attorneys, but not their proposed two-week timeline.

“The General Assembly’s failure to comply with this Court’s August 2016 Order or to take any apparent action since the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed this Court’s judgment tends to indicate that the General Assembly does not appreciate the need to move promptly to cure the unconstitutional racial gerrymanders in the 2011 districting plans,” the order reads.

Politics of delaying

During last week’s hearing Judge Catherine Eagles repeatedly questioned whether legislators are taking the need for new districts seriously.

Testimony by Democratic Party officials at the hearing asserted that the delay tactics are to the GOP’s advantage.

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Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, who as the party’s Conference Chair in the House is responsible for recruiting and supporting candidates, testified under normal circumstances at this point in the election cycle he would encourage candidates for 2018 races to get their names out and start raising funds.

But until new districts are settled, he said, his counsel is to lie low. Viable candidates, he said, are likely to be drawn out of competitive districts. Democrats also expect sitting legislators to be “doubled bunked” in the same districts and others to be shifted around for partisan advantage.

Monday’s order gives the legislature a month to work with, starting with the August 21 deadline for the establishment of criteria, plans for public input and a preliminary set of maps based on the criteria.

Where will change take place?

One early decision will be what areas will be open to redistricting. The court found that 19 House and nine Senate districts were drawn to pack African-American voters into certain districts, reducing minority voting strength in adjacent districts.

At last week’s redistricting committee hearing, co-chair Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said early on the committee will need to review whether to keep the current county groupings.

As drawn, those groupings, meant to balance both federal voting rights requirements and the state constitution’s requirements to keep counties whole, could rule out redistricting in large sections of western and southeastern North Carolina.

The districts ruled illegal by the court are concentrated in urban areas. The closest to the western region are in Mecklenburg and Forsyth counties.

Although Lewis said a decision had not been made on whether to reconsider the groupings, an attorney for the legislature said during the Greensboro hearing that some change in the county groupings might be necessary. Such a change could open the door to more drastic district changes in additional parts of the state.

In an interview after last week’s meeting Sen. Ralph Hise, R-McDowell, said any changes in western districts will depend on how the county groupings, he uses the term “pods,” are resolved.

Pointing to the areas west of the unconstitutional Mecklenburg districts, he said unless something leads to changes in the counties the districts won’t change.

“Particularly for the west, any district from there over is unaffected by the optimum pod map,” he said.

For the county groupings to change, he said, there would have to be “some other driving factor” other than the whole county requirements and previous court rulings.

Sen. Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, who also serves on the redistricting committee, said she is worried about the extent of the redistricting, whether it will be limited in scope to the areas near the challenged districts.

“Rep. Lewis saying they they don’t have to abide by the clusters gives me pause for concern,” she said. “If they change the clusters, everything’s up for grabs.

The answer, or at least some hints on the issue, could come as early as this week.

The House and Senate are scheduled to open a new session with a wide array of legislative possibilities tomorrow morning.

On Friday afternoon, the Joint Select Committee on Redistricting meets for the first time after Monday’s court order and is expected to hold a public comment session. Those interested in commenting would need to submit an online form in advance.

Redistricting and election timeline

A panel of three federal judges issued an order Monday calling for new state House and Senate districts to be drawn for the 2018 elections. Here’s the timeline for redistricting in the order and the 2018 election schedule

August 21, 2017 — Deadline for General Assembly to submit redistricting criteria to the court and make public the criteria, plans for receiving public comment and proposed plans drawn under under the criteria. The rest of the timeline depends on whether this first deadline is met.

September 1, 2017 — Deadline for the General Assembly to approve new districts if the state fails to meet the August 21 deadline. The legislature would then have seven days to submit the plans to the court for review.

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September 15, 2017 — If the legislature meets the requirements in the August 21 deadline it will get a 14 day extension on the September 1 deadline for new districts. If the legislature misses the August 21 deadline, this would become the deadline for plaintiffs to respond to the legislature’s new plans and submit alternative redistricting plans. Defendants would then have seven days to respond.

September 29, 2017 — If the General Assembly met its Aug. 21 deadline and received an extension on its subsequent deadline ,this would become the last day for plaintiffs to object, after which the defendants would have seven days to respond.

February 12, 2018 — Filing period opens for 2018 candidates

February 28, 2018 — Filing period closes

May 8, 2018 — Primary election

June 26, 2018 — Second primary

July 17, 2018 — Second primary (if required for U.S. House or Senate race)

November 6, 2018 — General Election

Note: The court waived the requirement in the state constitution that candidates must reside in their districts 1 year prior to Election Day. They now must be residents in their districts by the close of the 2018 candidate filing period.

Coming tomorrow: A closer look at the potential impact of redistricting on Western North Carolina.

 

 

Kirk Ross

Based in the Triangle, Kirk Ross is the capital bureau chief for Carolina Public Press. Contact him at kross@carolinapublicpress.org.

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