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Why the legal battle over North Carolina’s political maps is 'now or never' for Democrats


The North Carolina Supreme Court has pushed back the date of the state’s primary election from March to May 2022 in order for the courts to decide whether the Republican-drawn maps for Congress and the General Assembly are constitutional.

Joining WFAE’s “All Things Considered” host Gwendolyn Glenn to talk about what happens next, and the impact on next year’s election, is WFAE’s political reporter Steve Harrison.

Gwendolyn Glenn: North Carolina’s maps went through a nearly decade-long legal battle the last time around. Catch us up on the latest with these new maps and what Democrats say is wrong with them.

Steve Harrison: North Carolina now has a 14th Congressional seat, and the new map gives Republicans the clear advantage in nine of those seats and Democrats the clear advantage in three. Another seat leans Democratic, and the final seat leans Republican. So you get a big Republican year, which is expected to happen in 2022, and you could have an 11-3 map.

Kathy Manning is a Democrat who represents Greensboro in Congress. And under that map, her seat was just wiped out. Guilford County is now divided into three districts, all of which lean Republican.

Democrats say a fair Congressional map gives them a realistic chance to win 6 or 7 seats because they often come close to winning half of the vote in federal elections.

In the General Assembly, Republicans appear poised to reclaim their super-majorities under the new House and Senate maps. Those super-majorities mean Republican lawmakers can expect to override vetoes by Democratic governors like Roy Cooper.

Glenn: Those congressional and Statehouse maps led to three lawsuits challenging these maps. It’s almost a sequel to what happened in the last decade.

Harrison: Sequel is right. Except a few things are different. Everything is moving so much faster this time than in the 2010s.

Last decade, the first ruling overturning maps came in 2016. That’s five years after the maps were drawn. We’re now on a timetable that we’ll have a decision in around five weeks.

Bob Phillips of the non-partisan group Common Cause challenged those maps last decade, and his group is challenging them again.

“At least now there is a schedule certain, and this should be resolved one way or another before the 2022 election,” said Phillips. “And everyone should want this.”

Harrison: So here is what’s going to happen: There is a three-judge panel of two Republicans and one Democrat that was appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court, Paul Newby. Newby, of course, narrowly defeated Democrat Cheri Beasley in last year’s election.

It’s probably safe to assume that if Beasley had won, the panel might have two Democrats and one Republican.

Glenn: Now the North Carolina Supreme Court is involved and they said the lower court needs to make a decision on or before Jan. 11, is that right?

Harrison: It did. And if that panel rules in favor of the Republicans who drew the maps, then the plaintiffs - The North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, among them – will certainly appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court.

This is where the timing is really important for Democrats. This could be their last shot to overturn the maps.

Right now, there are four Democrats on the state Supreme Court and three Republicans. But two of the seats held by Democratic justices are on the ballot for next year.

Robin Hudson is retiring, and Samuel Ervin, IV is up for reelection. Republicans, of course, want to win those seats. And with that expected Red Wave building for next year, they may do it.

So there is a sense among the plaintiffs that it’s kind of now or never.

Glenn: So we could have a Republican majority on the state Supreme Court after next year’s elections. Would Democrats have any avenues challenging the maps at the federal level?

Harrison: Probably not because that’s already been decided. In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the North Carolina case Rucho vs Common Cause that partisan gerrymandering is not unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts said it’s unseemly, but he said there is no way for the courts to police it and left it up to the states.

Glenn: The move to delay the primary impacts all races, right?

Harrison: That’s right. In Mecklenburg County, there were going to be primaries for mayor and Charlotte City Council, for county commission and judges. That’s all been pushed back to May. The city council general election would probably be in July.

And of course, the city council and mayor’s race were supposed to have happened in November but they had to be pushed back because of delays in getting new population data from the census bureau.

Glenn: Do you have any sense of how a May and July election would impact voter turnout?

Harrison: I don’t think there will be much of a change. Remember, North Carolina has historically had a May primary. It was moved to March for the 2020 election cycle.

The big senate primaries of Jeff Jackson against Cheri Beasley on the Democratic side, and Ted Budd against Pat McCrory on the Republican side, they are still going to be a really big deal. People will likely come out and vote.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.
Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.