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The 2022 midterm elections are the first of the Biden era. They're also the first since the 2020 census, which means there are new congressional districts. There are U.S. Senate races in the Carolinas as well, along with many state and local races.

North Carolina Supreme Court to rule on GOP maps. Here is what to know

 North Carolina's new Congressional map gives Republicans the advantage in 10 of 14 seats.
NC General Assembly
North Carolina's new Congressional map gives Republicans the advantage in 10 of 14 seats.

What is at stake?

Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly drew a Congressional map last year that gives them a clear advantage in 9 of the state’s 14 Congressional seats. They are favored in a 10th seat. Democrats are heavy favorites in 3 seats and a slight lean in 1.

In an election that would be good for Republicans, they could win 11 of the state’s 14 seats. The state’s current Congressional delegation is 8 Republicans and 5 Democrats. That map was drawn in 2019 after a three-judge panel found the existing maps were unconstitutional.

The state House and Senate maps are favorable to Republicans and give them a chance at winning super-majorities. That would allow them to easily override vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Republicans drew maps that give them a chance to win seats in urban counties like Wake and Mecklenburg.

Who has filed lawsuits?

There are a number of lawsuits challenging the maps. The plaintiffs include Common Cause, the League of Conservation Voters and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. There are also a group of Democratic voters who have filed suit, and the NAACP challenged the criteria used to draw them.

The group of voters say that the GOP diluted Democratic voters in its Congressional map by splitting Mecklenburg, Wake and Guilford counties into three districts. Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Manning’s seat in Greensboro was essentially eliminated from the map entirely.

They also say it dilutes the strength of Black voters, especially in a rural seat in the northeast part of the state that’s been held by Democrat G.K. Butterfield. It now has fewer African-American voters. Butterfield is retiring and said he is leaving Congress in part because of the new map.

The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave North Carolina’s maps failing grades for fairness.

What do Republicans say?

Republicans say they did not use racial or political data when drawing the maps. But during January’s four-day trial, State Rep. Destin Hall, a Republican, testified that he consulted with so-called “concept maps” to help him draw maps in Buncombe County. The plaintiffs say Hall’s testimony is evidence that the GOP used racial and political data to draw maps that were favorable to Republicans.

Republicans also say Democrats are at a disadvantage because their voters cluster together in cities. They say that means most maps will naturally “pack” Democrats into safe seats where Democratic candidates win easily.

What has happened so far?

A panel of three Superior Court judges — two Republicans and one Democrat — ruled on Jan. 11 that the maps could stand.

However, they wrote that "we conclude based upon a careful review of all of the evidence that the Enacted Maps are a result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting."

The panel said it did not have the discretion to overturn them, however.

The judges said that North Carolina’s state constitution gives the legislature the power to draw those maps, with almost no guidance or rules.

In its decision, the panel said they had "not been asked to eliminate all partisan gerrymandering, only "extreme" partisan gerrymandering. "In short, we are asked to decide how much partisanship is 'extreme.' In attempting to do so, we necessarily require 'especially clear standards.' "

The panel said that if it struck down the maps, then the judicial branch could also tell the governor that his political appointees should also resemble the political makeup of the state.

The plaintiffs immediately appealed.

Who will make the final decision?

The North Carolina Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case on Feb. 2.

The plaintiffs hope the state’s highest court will be more receptive to their case. The court has four Democratic justices and three Republicans.

Both sides have been trying to get justices recused for various potential conflicts. For instance, Republicans say Democratic justice Anita Earls should recuse herself because she has received campaign contributions from the political wing of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. That group is founded by former Obama attorney general Eric Holder and is helping fund one of the lawsuits against the North Carolina maps.

Democrats want Republican justice Phil Berger Jr. to recuse himself because his father is GOP Senate leader Phil Berger Sr.

Both sides say privately they expect the highest court to invalidate the maps.

What happens then?

That’s unclear.

It’s possible the court could order a special master to draw the maps. It could send them back to the legislature for a second try.

In the first trial, the plaintiffs relied on the testimony of mathematicians and political scientists who said the maps were statistical outliers.

Republicans also pointed to the testimony of University of Michigan political scientist Jowei Chen, who said the most likely Congressional map would give Republicans the advantage in 9 seats and the Democrats the edge in 5 seats. (Chen’s analysis showed that in a 9-5 map there would have more competitive seats than what Republican mapmakers drew.)

So if the highest court orders lawmakers to draw new maps, the GOP will likely make a few shifts, likely giving Democrats back one Congressional seat. But they are unlikely to create a map that would be an even split of 7 Republican seats and 7 Democratic seats.

Chen’s analysis said that would be highly unlikely.

The League of Conservation Voters asked the three-judge panel to enact its own maps. That Congressional map could elect eight Democrats and six Republicans.

When is the primary?

It was originally set for March, the state Supreme Court moved it to May. The General Assembly recently passed legislation that would push it back to June. Republicans want to ensure they have enough time to draw new maps should the state Supreme Court send them back to the drawing board.

Gov. Roy Cooper may veto that bill.

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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.