From 9th Congressional District Chair James A. Davis

On February 4th, in a 4-3 ruling, the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down NC’s legislative and Congressional maps as unconstitutionally partisan. This ruling defends the rights of every individual’s vote, regardless of race or political belief,  This is fantastic news for North Carolinians and the health of our democracy.

Here are some highlights of the decision:

  • By 5:00 p.m. on 2/18/22 – The General Assembly must draw a new set of Congressional and legislative maps and send them to the Superior Court. All parties in the case may also submit their preferred maps for consideration. The Superior Court will choose the maps that meet the guidelines of the North Carolina Constitution.

The Supreme Court’s ruling contains one huge change. In a monumental ruling, the General Assembly is required to also review the data on any racially polarizing voter patterns, in accordance with the Voting Rights Act. Such patterns serve to dilute the influence of people of color in voting. This will help represent voters instead of politicians. As an example, under the now-defunct maps, roughly 25% of the Black lawmakers in the state legislature would have been at risk of losing their seats in the upcoming election.

Concerning partisan gerrymandering, the Court ruled that the maps can’t diminish the power of anyone’s vote based on their party affiliation.

  • By 5:00 p.m. on 2/21/22 – All parties must submit any comments to the Superior Court.
  • By 12:00 p.m. on 2/23/22 – The Superior Court will choose the maps.
  • By 5:00 p.m. on 2/23/22 – Parties must submit any objections to the selected maps.

Candidate filing will resume at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, February 24th, and will close at Noon on Friday, March 4th.

Lawmakers Prepare to Redo District Maps

Voting around the towns 22.jpeg
Voting at the Moore County Agriculture Center Tuesday morning. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

State lawmakers have just two weeks to come up with new political district maps after the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the original documents in a 4-3 decision along party lines last Friday.

The four Democratic justices declared that the maps were unconstitutional and would lock in Republican majorities across the state despite the GOP representing no more than half the state’s voters.

The Supreme Court last December delayed the primary election from March 8 to May 17 following legal challenges to the original districts. Justices will have just five days to make a final decision on the maps once Republican legislators submit them on Feb. 18. Candidate filing is set to resume Feb. 24.

Moore County’s representatives, who all sit in the Republican majority, declined comment for now on what a new round of redistricting could mean for the county.

“I do know that we will be in Raleigh working on redistricting, and we’ve been advised by our council to just remain quiet right now,” said State Rep. Jamie Boles, whose House district now includes much of Moore County.

For now, all parties appear to be trying to stick to a May 17 primary election. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed an attempt by Republican lawmakers recently to push back the primary date to June.

The maps that the court rejected Friday were drawn up by N.C. House Redistricting Committee and included a period for public input. Not surprisingly in a state with a long history of lawsuits over gerrymandering, the first legal challenges were issued within hours of voting. As approved, the maps were projected to give Republicans a 10-4 majority in its congressional delegation despite a nearly even ratio of registered voters between each major party. The GOP also would have retained its majorities in the State Senate and House under the rejected maps.

In their ruling Friday, justices said that the maps defied several provisions in the state’s constitution dealing with free elections, freedom of speech and equal protections of citizens.

Republican leaders did not deny that the maps leaned in their favor. Instead, they argued that the constitution does not prohibit partisan advantage from being considered in map drawing. Republicans bolstered their case from a ruling by state trial judges last month. In that ruling, the judges admitted that the maps “are a result of intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting.” However, they ultimately decided to uphold the maps on the grounds that it was not the place of the courts to interfere with the democratic legislative process.

The new maps would have brought substantive change for Moore County’s representation in the General Assembly.

In the state Senate, instead of being connected with Randolph or Richmond counties as in past years, the new district map connected Moore with large parts of Cumberland County to the east.

Current State Sen. Tom McInnis, who lived in Richmond County near Ellerbe, moved to a home in Pinehurst so he could keep Moore County as his district.

In the House, most of Moore previously fell within House District 52. Just a small portion of the county rested within District 78, which took in much of Randolph County and was represented by Rep. Allen McNeill.

Under the new districts, Moore County would have been cut into three house districts: 78, 51 and 52. However, the boundaries for District 52 would have been substantially changed to include all of Richmond County, putting Boles in a so-called “double-bunked position” with another incumbent, Rep. Ben Moss, of Rockingham. Both men have filed to run for the District 52 seat.

The changes won’t affect McNeill personally — he announced last December he was retiring — but a redrawn District 78 took in much more of Moore County and includes Pinehurst, Seven Lakes and large swaths of southern and western Moore. House District 51, currently represented by Republican Rep. John Sauls of Sanford, would include northeastern Moore but be a Lee County-centric district.

In addition to those changes, the rejected redistricting maps reunited Moore County into one congressional district. It most recently was divided almost in half between U.S. House Districts 8 and 9. Under the new map, it would be included all in District 8. Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, who currently represents District 9, has indicated he will file for District 8.

In its ruling Friday, the state Supreme Court did not specify which districts needed to be changed or produce clear standards on the revision.

“At this point in time, I don’t think anybody’s been given any clarification from the court so maybe we’ll have something by the end of the week,” Boles said.

North Carolina Supreme Court strikes down new voting maps

By Bryan Anderson & Travis Fain, WRAL statehouse reporters

The North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday voted to strike down new voting maps Republicans passed in November.

The high court issued a 4-3 decision split along ideological lines. It said Republicans must submit new voting maps to a lower court by 5 p.m. Feb. 18, where they must then be approved by a three-judge panel by noon on Feb. 23. If the new legislative and congressional boundaries are not submitted in time, the judges would be tasked with selecting a plan.

“When a districting plan systematically makes it harder for one group of voters to elect a governing majority than another group of voters of equal size, the General Assembly unconstitutionally infringes upon that voter’s fundamental right to vote,” the four registered Democrats on the state Supreme Court wrote in their order.

The voting maps passed in November strongly favored the GOP, with the party slated to win 10 or 11 of the 14 U.S. House seats up for grabs in the 2022 election. The new state House and Senate maps also gave Republicans a better chance of securing veto-proof majorities.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper praised the high court’s decision rejecting the legislative and congressional maps, writing on Twitter: “A healthy democracy requires free elections and the NC Supreme Court is right to order a redraw of unconstitutionally gerrymandered districts. More work remains and any legislative redraw must reflect the full intent of this decision.”

State Sen. Ralph Hise, a western North Carolina Republican who co-led the mapdrawing process and was named in the lawsuit, criticized the court’s decision, arguing that the justices set a precedent that will be difficult to unwind.

“Democratic judges, lawyers, and activists have worked in concert to transform the Supreme Court into a policymaking body to impose their political ideas,” Hise said in a statement.

Chief Justice Paul Newby, a registered Republican, dissented, saying that it is up to voters and lawmakers to prevent partisan maps from being carried out. His GOP colleagues, Phil Berger Jr. and Tamara Barringer also opposed the court’s decision.

“Unless and until the people alter the law to either limit or prohibit the practice of partisan gerrymandering, this Court is without any satisfactory or manageable legal standard and thus must refuse to resolve such a claim,” Newby wrote.

In a statement, the state Democratic Party called the ruling “a critical and momentous step towards maps that protect the fundamental right to vote.”

Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, said in a statement, “We are extremely disappointed that the four Democrats on the Supreme Court have chosen political expediency over reason in order to invalidate the maps drawn by the NC General Assembly. This blatantly partisan decision flies in the face of centuries of judicial and legislative precedent and directly contradicts any plain reading of the North Carolina Constitution.”

The high court in December halted candidate filing and voted to push back the primary by 10 weeks from March 8 to May 17 to ensure the case could work its way through the court system. A panel of Wake County Superior Court judges, including two registered Republicans and one registered Democrat, unanimously voted last month to keep the maps in place.

The state Supreme Court’s ruling says the state should expect to have districts finalized by Feb. 23 and primaries held as planned on May 17.

“We will work to comply with the schedule and administer elections in the new districts,” said Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections.

Though the three-judge panel found evidence of “pro-Republican partisan redistricting” that could generate election results that are “incompatible with democratic principles,” the judges determined they didn’t have the power to rein in the legislature’s mapmaking powers.

The state Supreme Court then agreed to swiftly hear the voting groups’ appeal.

The core issue in the redistricting case was less about whether GOP lawmakers drew voting maps meant to boost their political power. Rather, the focus was whether state courts are permitted to do anything about it.

Voting rights groups challenging the maps argued that the boundaries Republicans drew violated residents’ rights under the state constitution to a free election and equal protection under the law.

Allison Riggs, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, also said the maps should be struck down because they dilute the voting power of racial minorities, particularly Black voters who overwhelmingly choose to elect Democrats.

Riggs called the court’s ruling on Friday “an unequivocal win for North Carolina’s Black voters who were most harmed by this extreme partisan gerrymander.”

Republicans have noted Black voters are not a monolith and that they did not use racial data when drawing the maps.

“There was no racial data used, so it was not possible to discriminate against minorities,” said Phil Strach, an attorney representing GOP lawmakers.

Only one of the three registered Republicans on the high court, Chief Justice Paul Newby, spoke during oral arguments. He noted a “fair” election isn’t explicitly afforded to voters.

Strach argued the state constitution’s free election and equal protection clauses do not address partisan gerrymandering. He also warned the four Democratic justices on the state Supreme Court who questioned him that they could be seen as legislating from the bench if they struck down the maps.

“The damage to this court has already begun,” Strach told the justices. “The mere possibility that this court might strike down the redistricting plans has already led some in the public to start treating the court like a legislature, not a court.”

What happens next in North Carolina’s redistricting case

(North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts via AP)
By Bryan Anderson, WRAL statehouse reporter

RALEIGH, N.C. — The arguments have been heard and the waiting game for voters, lawmakers and advocacy groups has begun.

North Carolina’s Supreme Court will soon decide whether maps Republicans approved in November can go forward.

The maps, as they stand, are highly favorable to Republicans. The decision will impact the extent of a GOP advantage in a state that is nearly evenly decided and stands to influence President Joe Biden’s ability to carry out his legislative agenda.

Whatever the court decides is likely to shape political power in the state for the next decade. If the maps are struck down, Democrats could see a more favorable political environment. If they are upheld, Republicans would almost assuredly boost their representation in the U.S. House and General Assembly in the upcoming election.

In the meantime, candidates and political operatives are waiting to see what the finalized boundaries will look like and whether the primary will remain on May 17.

All seven justices on the state Supreme Court, including four registered Democrats and three Republicans, participated in Wednesday’s hearing. A faster-than-usual opinion is expected, but a slow turnaround could result in further delays to an election that the justices have already postponed by 10 weeks.

These are a few of the possible outcomes:

Scenario 1: Order lawmakers to redraw. Many political observers expect the Supreme Court to order some form of a redraw.

If that happens, the high court could choose to give the legislature at least two weeks to redraw maps and then evaluate them before deciding whether to appoint an independent redistricting expert known as a “special master.”

But without a special master, Democrats and voting rights groups fear the GOP wouldn’t be incentivized to draw fairer maps in a state that is nearly evenly split politically.

If a redraw is ordered, Republicans would likely want the Supreme Court to step out of the process and have a lower court oversee the effort.

A panel of Wake County Superior Court judges, including two registered Republicans and one Democrat, unanimously decided last month that the maps, while drawn for the GOP’s political gain, did not violate the state constitution. Republican lawmakers believe they could benefit from having the lower court oversee the redraw process because it had previously sided with them.

Since Democrats hold a 4-3 advantage on the state Supreme Court, voting rights groups want the redraw process handled by the high court.

The North League of Conservation Voters, one of the plaintiffs challenging the new voting maps, wants the high court to oversee the redraw and order that the finalized maps stay in place for the next decade.

Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political science professor, said the Supreme Court tends to want the trial court that heard the original case to revisit it once maps are redrawn to ensure the updated boundaries comply with the high court’s guidance.

“The likelihood is if the legislature has to redraw the maps, and if it needs to be challenged again, it would go back to the same three-judge panel with the new instructions by the state Supreme Court,” Bitzer said.

After watching oral arguments on Wednesday and reading court filings, Bitzer believes the four Democratic justices have reached a consensus that the new voting maps Republican approved in November 2021 are excessive partisan gerrymanders.

Whether the high court believes a comprehensive redraw of every congressional, state House and state Senate district is necessary remains an open question.

Scenario 2: Order lawmakers to redraw and appoint a special master. Under state law, the Republican-controlled legislature should get at least 14 days to make the political boundaries more fair.

The high court could also create a parallel track and appoint an independent expert to handle the redraw if Republicans produce a revised map that the high court still believes violates residents’ rights under the state constitution to a free election and equal protection under the law. Under this scenario, the special master would be in a secondary role and considered a consultant of sorts, rather than a main map-drawer.

Republican lawmakers are privately bracing for this scenario, though they hope the high court will rule in their favor.

Phil Strach, an attorney representing GOP lawmakers, argued Wednesday that the free election and equal protection provisions of the state constitution do not address partisan gerrymandering.

Under the congressional map Republicans passed last fall, the party is expected to get 10 or 11 of the 14 U.S. House seats up for grabs. This is achieved in large part by splitting Wake, Mecklenburg and Guilford counties into thirds.

Zach Schauf, an attorney representing one of the three plaintiff groups suing the GOP over the maps, said in Wednesday’s Supreme Court hearing that “the party that wins more votes should have at least a fighting chance to win most of the seats.” Democrats can handily win a majority of overall votes this year yet still not capture a majority of U.S. House seats, according to independent expert analyses.

Another attorney representing plaintiffs, Stanton Jones, argued the U.S. House, state Senate and state House maps are all “extreme gerrymanders that violate the fundamental rights of millions of North Carolinians, and this court has the power and duty to say so.”

If the high court strikes down the new voting maps, Democrats would almost certainly gain greater political representation, particularly in the strongholds that include the cities of Raleigh, Charlotte and Greensboro.

The GOP currently holds an 8-5 edge in the U.S. House. The state gained an additional seat after the U.S. Census Bureau reported sizable population growth in North Carolina over the past decade.

Scenario 3: Appoint a special master as the main map-drawer. While the previous option would have a special master work concurrently with the Republican-controlled legislature on a redraw, the court could also choose to make the independent expert its primary or exclusive mapdrawer.

Some have argued the state Supreme Court could overturn the state law mandating it give lawmakers at least 14 days to redraw maps.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein have claimed the legislature “lacks authority to place limits on this court’s power to remedy constitutional violations.”

Republicans, meanwhile, have insisted the court must at least give the General Assembly a chance to redraw.

Bitzer believes the justices are unlikely to appoint a special master to bypass the legislature because they want to be seen as members of a coequal branch of government not overstepping their authority.

Scenario 4: Uphold the new voting maps. The state Supreme Court could rule similarly to the Wake County Superior Court. While justices may find evidence of unfair congressional and legislative maps, they could determine that the boundaries should remain in place since they do not violate the state constitution.

If the maps are upheld and a decision is made in about a week, the May 17 primary schedule would almost assuredly remain intact. Candidates for elected office would have between Feb. 24 and March 4 to file their paperwork to get on the ballot.

The high court in December halted candidate filing and delayed the primary by 10 weeks, pushing back the election from March 8 to May 17.

Scenario 5: U.S. Supreme Court gets involved. Whatever the North Carolina Supreme Court decides could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court if the losing side can make a compelling point that the matter involves a federal question.

“It certainly is a possibility because decisions rendered by state Supreme Courts, if there is what is called a federal question involved in the case, can take it directly up to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Bitzer said.

If the North Carolina Supreme Court upholds the maps, the voting groups could argue the maps violate the Voting Rights Act by discriminating on the basis of race.

Gerry Cohen, an adjunct instructor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy and Michael Crowell, a constitutional law expert and former UNC School of Government professor, said Republican attorneys defending the GOP maps in court have tried to lay the groundwork for a possible appeal.

If the maps are rejected and the court sets a new precedent for what constitutes an unlawful gerrymander, the Republican attorneys can ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the state court’s ruling from being implemented.

“The damage to this court has already begun,” Strach told the justices during Wednesday’s hearing on behalf of GOP lawmakers. “The mere possibility that this court might strike down the redistricting plans has already led some in the public to start treating the court like a legislature, not a court.”

But U.S. Supreme Court intervention is widely believed to be the least likely option given that the court determined in 2019 that the issue of whether election maps are gerrymandered, or drawn in a way that is too partisan, cannot be determined by federal courts.

In a 5-4 decision split along ideological lines, the conservative justices decided the matter is one for states and lawmakers to decide instead. With a 6-3 conservative majority now in place following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, odds of the Supreme Court considering an appeal appear slim.

WRAL Statehouse Reporter Paul Specht contributed to this article.