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With Latest Gerrymandering Ruling, Outlook Of NC Congressional Elections Uncertain

The State Board of Elections has stopped work on the Nov. 6 ballot, after two rulings this week questioned whether the election can proceed as planned.
North Carolina General Assembly
A three-judge panel ruled North Carolina's current Congressional map unconstitutional Monday.

Monday's ruling by a three-judge panel that North Carolina's current Congressional maps are unconstitutional could mean the current election schedule for those races is scrapped this year, leaving the state and both political parties scrambling to determine what comes next, nine weeks before the general election.

The state Republican Party decried the ruling as causing "unmitigated chaos." 

The chair of the N.C. Democratic Party, Wayne Goodwin, said Tuesday that postponing the Nov. 6 general election until new maps could be drawn would be a "prudent option." He said the state has gone six years with what he said are unconstitutional maps, and that it shouldn't hold another election with the current Congressional boundaries.

The panel, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of N.C., sided with Common Cause and the League of Women Voters NC in finding the Republican leadership unfairly created a map that heavily favored the GOP in winning 10 of 13 seats.

The ruling could mean drastic measures for the state. One possibility is that the General Assembly or a third-party would draw new maps next month, and new primaries would be held Nov. 6. A new general election would be held sometime in December.

The N.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement is researching how it could overhaul the election schedule in a few weeks.

"We are still working through what scenarios would require special federal intervention," said Joshua Lawson, an attorney for the board.

Republicans are furious over the decision.

“What the court suggests is simply impossible," Republican House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger said in a joint statement. "I’m not aware of any other time in the history of our country that a state’s Congressional delegation could not be seated, and the result would be unmitigated chaos and irreparable voter confusion. The Supreme Court must step in to correct this disastrous decision.”

Moore and Berger said they expect they will ask the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay, which would allow the general election to be held Nov. 6. The panel asked both sides to file briefs in the case by Friday.

The Supreme Court is currently divided 4-4 between liberal and conservative justices. A 4-4 tie would send the case back to the same judges who raised the possibility of postponing the general election.

The three-judge panel did not definitively say that the current election schedule should be scrapped. The ruling said that courts usually allow a legislature to make a new attempt to draw constitutional maps, though it said the N.C. case is an "exceptional circumstance."

"When a court finds a remedial districting plan also violates the Constitution, courts generally do not afford a legislature a second ‘bite-at-the-apple’ to enact a constitutionally compliant plan," the judges wrote.

They also said the General Assembly "made no discernible effort to take advantage of the previous opportunity we afforded it to draw a plan that cures the partisan gerrymander."

The panel said the General Assembly could attempt to draw the districts again, and it suggested a third party create the state's Congressional map.

Common Cause said Tuesday it was pleased with the ruling. But it said the state doesn't necessarily have to postpone the general election, and said the new maps could possibly wait until January.

"It's tough to speculate about upcoming elections," said Common Cause director of communications Bryan Warner. "But the lawmaker's intent was cystal clear. They boasted about their intent. That is undeniable."

Warner was referring to comments made in 2016 by State Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican, who helped draw the current map.

"I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats," he said. "So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country."

The panel said Mecklenburg County voters had been unfairly treated by the legislature.

It said the General Assembly divided the county "to pack Mecklenburg voters" who were unlikely to support a Republican, and the panel said that would "dilute their votes." It questioned why Republican precincts in south Charlotte were assigned to the 9th Congressional District.