Poll worker Jim Taylor checks in primary election voters at the Old Fort Wesleyan Church polling place in McDowell County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press
Poll worker Jim Taylor checks in primary election voters at the Old Fort Wesleyan Church polling place in McDowell County on March 3, 2020. Colby Rabon / Carolina Public Press

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After a two-week sprint, the state Supreme Court’s deadline looms for North Carolina’s General Assembly to submit revised political maps after justices ruled the prior maps to be unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders favoring Republicans. 

On Thursday afternoon, the General Assembly passed the new map for the state House with bipartisan support. Later that night, the legislature passed the state Senate and U.S. congressional maps on party-line votes. 

Earlier Thursday, state Sens. Paul Newton and Warren Daniel, the Republicans responsible for drawing new state Senate and U.S. congressional maps, presented them to the House redistricting committee. 

“We believe that if either party runs good candidates and good campaigns and touches the issues that people care about, either party could have a majority at the end of the next election,” Newton said about the Senate maps. 

Daniel presented the U.S. congressional maps and described them as highly competitive. Both senators described the maps as passing the mathematical measures for partisan fairness that the state Supreme Court laid out as potential tests for constitutionality. 

But Democrats protested, along with one Republican. 

“Boy, I’m really not sure how this map is going to pass constitutional muster,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, during the floor debate. 

The constitutional standard for these maps was only set earlier in the week, when the state Supreme Court released its full opinion on Monday. The court previously released an order Feb. 4 that gave some guidance about what it would look for in constitutional maps.

Harrison based her analysis of metropolitan counties, such as Guilford in her district, that were split in the proposed congressional map.

Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, a 20-year military veteran, voted against the congressional maps for splitting up Fort Bragg, the largest military base in the county. The maps followed the court’s mathematical standards for fairness at the expense of keeping communities of interest together, he said. 

Rep. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, partially agreed with his Republican colleague. Graham had hoped to see more preservation of communities of interest, namely a U.S. congressional district encompassing all of the Sandhills region of the state. An early proposed version of the map included such a district, but in this passed version, the region is split into three districts. 

On Friday, the maps will be filed with the three-judge panel at the trial court to review the maps for compliance with the state Supreme Court’s order on what counts as constitutional political maps. The court may also consider maps from the three groups that sued the Republican legislative leaders in December to stop their first attempts at redistricting from going forward. 

As it stands now, the 2022 primaries are scheduled for May 17. Here are the court and election deadlines leading up to Election Day, and the ways it could all get delayed again. 

Trial court to decide, again 

When a plaintiff raises a constitutional question in North Carolina’s courts, it goes in front of a panel of three Superior Court judges. The panel appointed in this case, of two Republican judges and one Democrat, previously said the Republican maps drawn in November were constitutional. 

Plaintiffs appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, which overturned the decision. The higher court laid out some standards by which the partisan skew of a map, or how much it favors one political party over another, can be measured for constitutional compliance and sent the case back to the three-judge panel. 

Now, Judges Graham Shirley II, R-Wake, Nathaniel Poovey, R-Catawba, and Dawn Layton, D-Richmond, will have until noon Feb. 23, to decide which maps the state will use in its 2022 primaries. 

Each of the plaintiff groups in the case — the N.C. League of Conservation Voters, the Democratic Party-affiliated National Redistricting Fund and the nonpartisan good-governance group Common Cause — can submit their own maps for consideration. 

If no party appeals the decision, the primaries would likely proceed as planned. Candidate filing would open Feb. 24 and close March 4. Then, absentee-by-mail ballots would go out at the latest on April 1. Early in-person voting would start April 28, and the primary election day would be May 17.

But an appeal of the trial court’s decision from any party by 5 p.m. Feb. 23 would likely delay all that, according to Catawba College political science professor and redistricting expert Michael Bitzer.

“It’s an extremely tight window that we’re operating under right now, and any further delay will have an effect on the primary date,” Bitzer wrote in an email to Carolina Public Press. 

That’s even before considering the potential complications of an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court or the legal fight over the eligibility of U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-Hendersonville, to run, both of which could further disrupt parts of the elections. 

How voters are affected 

Redistricting “​​is the most political activity in American politics,” and North Carolina’s voters are watching it play out in real time, Bitzer said.

As a consequence, voters have seen their voting districts split, zipped back together and recombined in ways that could change who is on their ballots. The primary was delayed from March and could be delayed again. 

Guilford County has seen some of the most dynamic proposed changes to its political maps. 

But for voters who may be confused or frustrated with the redistricting process, the county’s election director, Charlie Collicutt, wants voters to remember there’s so much more on the ballot.

Voters could see county commissioners, sheriffs, school board members, bond issues or municipal offices on their ballots come May. Each of those elections is important, so even if voters are throwing up their hands with the state legislature or congressional elections, their votes can still make an impact in other races, Collicutt said.

Once candidate filing is complete, elections officials like Collicutt will have a couple of weeks under the current schedule to create ballots for each precinct in their counties. When that happens, voters can use N.C. State Board of Elections website to look up sample ballots to see the candidates and races that will be on their ballots to help them prepare to vote.

Voters can already request an absentee-by-mail ballot, which will be mailed out at least 45 days before the election. Even if they request an absentee ballot, voters can still choose to vote in person but may not do both. 

“​​I’m a voter, too, and I don’t want it to be hard and confusing,” Collicutt said. 

What’s next 

Redistricting lawsuit schedule 

  • Feb. 18: 5 p.m. deadline for the General Assembly and plaintiffs to submit maps to the court 
  • Feb. 21: 5 p.m. deadline for the General Assembly and plaintiffs to submit comments on each other’s maps 
  • Feb. 23: Noon deadline for the trial court to approve the General Assembly’s maps or adopt maps from plaintiffs 
  • Feb. 23: 5 p.m. deadline for an emergency application of a stay with the state Supreme Court 

If no party asks for a stay, the elections will likely follow the schedule below. If a party asks for a stay and the state Supreme Court grants it, every step below will likely be delayed. 

Election schedule

  • Absentee-by-mail ballot portal is open. 
  • Feb. 24-March 4: Candidate filing. Candidates who filed under the previous districts and want to move under the new maps can ask to have their first filing negated and refile. 
  • March 28: County boards of elections will start mailing out absentee by-mail ballots. The State Board of Elections could delay this to April 1 if some counties need more time.
  • April 22: Civilian voter registration deadline for the primary.
  • April 28: One-stop, in-person early voting period begins.
  • May 10: Last day for civilians to ask for an absentee ballot.
  • May 14: Last day for one-stop, in-person early voting period.
  • May 17: Election Day for the primary and delayed municipal elections. All absentee-by-mail ballots have to be in the mail and postmarked by this date.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.