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Politics
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 judges change congressional boundaries but uphold new legislative lines

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NC Courts
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A three-judge panel told North Carolina lawmakers to use this interim map for the 2022 U.S. House election. Maps the General Assembly redrew for state legislative seats were approved by the court.

Updated 9:40 a.m. Feb. 24

Candidate filing in North Carolina will resume Thursday as scheduled, as the state Supreme Court refused late Wednesday to delay the use of redistricting maps endorsed by trial judges earlier in the day.

The justices declined any delay despite a flurry of appeals from Republican legislative leaders opposed to the new lines for U.S. House seats, and from lawyers for voters and advocacy groups unhappy with new state Senate districts that the trial judges upheld.

The decision also means primary elections will remain May 17. The Supreme Court had already suspended candidate filing in December and pushed back the March primary so that litigation challenging maps the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved in November could go to trial.

A majority of justices -- all registered Democrats -- struck down those lines earlier this month, saying they were partisan gerrymanders that violated the state constitution by failing to treat voters who back Democrats fairly.

Within two weeks, the General Assembly approved new congressional and legislative districts they say complied with the Supreme Court’s demands for partisan fairness and gave Democrats a pathway to win majorities.

On Wednesday, a panel of trial judges upheld the replacement state House and Senate boundaries but adopted an interim congressional plan that likely would be used for the 2022 elections only.

The judges agreed with the recommendation of special experts they hired who said the U.S. House map approved by the General Assembly failed to meet the statistical thresholds mentioned by the Supreme Court to give substantially similar voting power to Democrats and Republicans in an otherwise closely divided state.

“The court concludes that the remedial congressional plan does not satisfy the Supreme Court’s standards,” the order from Superior Court Judges Graham Shirley, Nathaniel Poovey and Dawn Layton read.

Republicans currently hold eight of the state's 13 U.S. House seats, with North Carolina to gain a 14th seat this decade due to population growth.

The new court-drawn congressional plan makes changes that likely would help Democrats in winning a sixth seat, according to Asher Hildebrand, a Duke University politics professor and former congressional aide.

In their motion to delay enforcement of the panel's congressional map ruling, Republican legislators contended the judges failed to give proper deference to the legislature.

“North Carolina has not passed legislation or amended its constitution to allow for a commission of three retired judges, aided by out-of-state mathematicians, to create district plans for our ... 7.2 million plus voters,” GOP attorney Phil Strach wrote, referencing the special masters.

Strach's brief contended the panel's adopted plan violated the U.S. Constitution — opening a possible door to challenge the map in federal courts.

For the approved state House and state Senate maps, Republicans have a slight electoral seat advantage, according to analyses when the lines are overlapped with the results of 12 statewide elections from 2016 and 2020. But Democrats have a path to win majorities in a favorable political year.

The lawsuit plaintiffs — the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters among them — had offered alternate maps for the judges to consider. They told the judges the replacement maps passed last week did not go far enough in eliminating partisan bias. Their court filings late Wednesday focused on changing the state Senate map, which they argue still contains pro-Republican gerrymandering.

The state Supreme Court denied over a dozen motions or petitions late Wednesday without giving reasons why. There was also no information provided about whether some justices disagreed with those decisions.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a defendant in redistricting litigation, said he would appeal the panel's decision on the congressional map to the state Supreme Court, calling it “nothing short of egregious,” particularly for eliminating competitive races. Senate Republicans did not immediately have a response.

For the approved state House and state Senate maps, Republicans have a slight electoral seat advantage, according to analyses when the lines are overlapped with the results of 12 statewide elections from 2016 and 2020. But Democrats have a path to win majorities in a favorable political year.

The lawsuit plaintiffs — the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and voters backed by a national Democratic redistricting group — had offered alternate maps for the judges to consider. They told the judges the replacement maps passed last week did not go far enough in eliminating partisan bias.

The plaintiffs emphasized their unhappiness with the U.S. House and state Senate plans, since the state House maps received overwhelming bipartisan support in the General Assembly.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose veto stamp does not apply to redistricting maps and who is not a plaintiff, criticized the ruling for allowing the state Senate boundaries to stand.

“Our elections should not go forward until we have fair, constitutional maps,” Cooper said in a news release.

The interim congressional map adopted by the judges could make it easier for first-term Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning of Greensboro to return to Congress. But it also could threaten the political future of five-term GOP Rep. Richard Hudson of Concord.

MORE ANALYSIS

WFAE political reporter Steve Harrison joined our "All Things Considered" host, Gwendolyn Glenn on Wednesday, to explain the latest developments.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Steve, OK, let’s look at the big headlines here. The court allowed the state House and Senate maps to stand. But overturned the congressional map and has enacted its own. What are the big changes?

Steve Harrison So, this is hard to keep up with because there have been so many maps over the last two months.

But the most recent Republican-drawn map favored the GOP in six seats and the Democrats in four. And there were four toss-up seats. And in today’s hyper-partisan environment, having four seats that are toss-ups is arguably a good thing.

But the court (panel), which has two Republican judges and one Democratic judge, said that map didn’t meet the strict standards for fairness laid out by the state Supreme Court earlier this month. So, they decided to enact a map drawn by a group of so-called special masters that included former state Supreme Court justice Bob Orr, who has become perhaps the state’s most vocal anti-Trump Republicans.

Glenn: And that map by the special masters – how does it look in terms of fairness?

Harrison: One analysis shows there are at least seven Republican seats and six safe Democratic seats, and then one seat in Wake and Johnston counties that could go either way. So, if you think competition is good, then this map arguably falls short of the previous map, which had those four toss-up seats.

Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Manning in Greensboro has had a roller coaster for the last two months. First her seat was erased. Then it came back — but in a toss-up district. And now with the new map it’s in a pretty safe Democratic district.

Glenn: And Mecklenburg County has been cut in half. That’s good news for Democrats, right?

Harrison: It doesn’t sound like it (would be), but if you are a Democrat, chopping Mecklenburg and the city of Charlotte in two is great news. This a Democratic fortress, and now all those Democratic voters have been spread into two districts. The 12th District is north Mecklenburg, north Charlotte and part of Cabarrus County. Democratic incumbent Alma Adams says she will run for reelection there.

And then there is the new 14th District. That includes part of Gaston County – but also heavily Democratic areas like west Charlotte, Steele Creek and also south Charlotte, which used to be Republican but has become Blue in the Trump era.

Glenn: So that new seat in Mecklenburg County: This will attract a lot of candidates, I presume?

I think that’s a safe bet. Winnable open seats for Congress don’t come around very often. And for the longest time, the game among Democrats is who will succeed Alma Adams when she retires. Now you have an open seat and a lot of people are going to give it a hard look – City Council members, county commissioners, state legislators.

But there is a big caveat.

Glenn: And that is these maps are probably only being used for the 2022 election.

Harrison: Exactly. Republicans say these maps will only be used this year and that the legislature will get to draw new maps for 2024 and the rest of the decade.

And with that in mind, they are looking closely at the two races this year for the state Supreme Court. Both of those seats are currently held by Democrats. And the amount of money and energy that’s going to go into those two races is expected to be enormous because Republicans need to win just one of those two races to win a 4-3 majority on the state’s highest court.

Glenn: And that court could decide whether the 2024 congressional map is constitutional.

Harrison: And that could be had for Democrats. You could have a Republican majority state Supreme Court reviewing maps drawn by a Republican legislature. That means the next map might be very disadvantageous for Democrats. Like that new congressional seat in Charlotte? It might get erased.

Glenn: And on the Republican side, there may be some hard choices for this congressional election.

Harrison: There will be, yes. Republican Richard Hudson today represents a seat from Cabarrus to Harnett County. And Republican Dan Bishop represents a Union County-to-Robeson County seat. This new map kind of combines the two districts — so one of them may have to move farther to the east and run in a new seat.

Glenn: So, what happens to Madison Cawthorn?

Harrison: There was a map where he could have represented Myers Park in a Mecklenburg-Gaston-Cleveland-Rutherford seat. But that map is gone, so he’s likely to return to the seat he currently represents in the mountains.

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