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Redistricting Case Could Delay North Carolina’s Primary

Ellmers faces a March 15 primary, but there's now speculation that will be pushed back because of redistricting litigation in North Carolina. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Ellmers faces a March 15 primary, but there's now speculation that will be pushed back because of redistricting litigation in North Carolina. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

By moving up all its primaries from May to March 15, North Carolina thought it would be playing a more pivotal role in this year’s presidential election. But a recent federal court ruling invalidating two of the state’s congressional districts threatens to delay this year’s earlier-than-normal primary and upend elections in which early voting is already under way.  

A three-judge panel ruled on Feb. 5 that the GOP-legislature relied too heavily on race in 2011 to draw the 1st and 12th Districts. The court gave the state until Feb. 19 to draw new districts, and on Tuesday, the same court denied a request from the state to stay its decision.  

Lawyers for North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory took their objection to that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, filing an emergency 183-page motion to stay the lower court’s ruling. “Thousands of absentee ballots have been distributed to voters who are filling them out and returning them. Hundreds of those ballots have already been voted and returned,” the state argued.  

Primary day for all of North Carolina’s elections is just over a month away, and if the map is going to change, the primary — for some or all offices — may have to be pushed back. “There would be a lot of resistance to moving the presidential primary,” said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. If the Supreme Court does not stay the lower court’s decision, the GOP-controlled legislature would likely take the first crack at redrawing the map, subject to the approval of the federal three-judge court. “The question is whether you can unpack them in a way that doesn’t create Democratic opportunity in other seats,” Li said of the black voters in the 1st and 12th Districts. This year, neither the 1st nor the 12th Districts are competitive, and even if African-American voters were unpacked from those districts, they’d likely remain Democratic districts. Democrats hold three seats in North Carolina, while Republicans hold 10.  

“Ultimately you have two types of districts: Three 70-plus Democratic-performing districts and 10 districts that are 30- to 40-percent performing. Ultimately whoever wins a primary is a member of Congress,” North Carolina Democratic consultant Morgan Jackson said Tuesday.  The state’s two competitive primaries are in the 2nd District, against three-term GOP Rep. Renee Ellmers, and in the 3rd District, against 11-term GOP Rep. Walter B. Jones. Ellmers, who’s backed by Mainstreet Partnership , has at least three primary challengers , one of whom, Jim Duncan, has the support of the Club for Growth, which went on air  against Ellmers on Tuesday. Jones is well-known for bucking the Republican party line , and is facing a rematch  from former GOP operative Taylor Griffin.  

“You can’t change one district without changing all of them,” Jackson said. “Ultimately,” he added, everybody from Charlotte east is going to have to be seriously redrawn
.”  Democrats are optimistic that unpacking the 1st District, currently held by G.K. Butterfield, and the 12th District, held by Alma Adams, would result in at least one true swing district or possibly one strong pick-up opportunity.  

Republicans, however, contend that changing the map before the primary would upset the democratic process.

“Both Republicans and mainstream Democrats I’ve spoken with this week are fed up with the endless and politically-tinged lawsuits coming from the extreme left,” said Ellmers adviser Patrick Sebastian. “You know this is about politics when these plaintiffs support disenfranchising voters who have already cast their ballot in this election. It’s nonsensical and unwise –hopefully the Supreme Court agrees.”

Late last year, in a separate case, the state Supreme Court upheld North Carolina’s congressional districts after the U.S. Supreme Court asked it to take a closer look at an earlier decision. A similar three-judge court in Virginia has repeatedly ruled the state’s legislature unconstitutionally packed black voters into one district. The court approved a new map , which will be in place for 2016, despite a pending GOP appeal to the Supreme Court .  

After “extensive efforts in the South to pack districts, under the guise of complying with the Voting Rights Act, now you’re seeing the ramifications of this play out, and it’s really remarkable that halfway through the decade, we don’t have final maps in places like Virginia, North Carolina and Texas,” Li said. 
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