Feb. 9, 2016 — Late Friday afternoon a federal three-judge panel sitting in Raleigh invalidated two North Carolina congressional districts even after absentee ballots had been issued throughout the state and votes are being cast. The North Carolina state primary is being held concurrently with the presidential vote on March 15. The court has ordered the state legislature to redraw the map by Feb. 19 so that the primary can move forward as scheduled.
The court, in ruling on a case filed more than a year ago, has thrown the primary campaigns into chaos. Republicans will immediately file a motion to stay the ruling with the US Supreme Court, but the identical move in Virginia was rejected on Feb. 1 in a similar case. The Virginia primary, however, is not until June 14, and that state has the option of choosing nominees in a convention format.
The North Carolina panel ruled that Districts 1 (Rep. G.K. Butterworth, D-Wilson) and 12 (Rep. Alma Adams, D-Greensboro) are unconstitutional because of racial gerrymandering. The judges stated that the legislative map drawers did not “narrowly tailor” the districts as they sought to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
“Because race predominated, the state must demonstrate that its districting decision is narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling interest. Even if the court assumes that compliance with the [Voting Rights Act] is a compelling state interest, attempts at such compliance ‘cannot justify race-based districting where the challenged district was not reasonably necessary under a constitutional reading and application’ of federal law. Thus, narrow tailoring requires that the legislature have a ‘strong basis in evidence’ for its race-based decision, that is, ‘good reasons to believe’ that the chosen racial classification was required to comply with the VRA. Evidence of narrow tailoring in this case is practically nonexistent; the state does not proffer any evidence with respect to CD 12. Based on this record, as explained below, the court concludes that North Carolina’s 2011 Congressional Redistricting Plan was not narrowly tailored to achieve compliance with the VRA, and therefore fails strict scrutiny,” the court stated in its 100 page ruling.
The changing of two districts, however, does not affect only those seats. Looking at the North Carolina map with its many irregular lines, it appears that as many as nine to 10 of the state’s 13 CDs could change when Districts 1 and 12 are reconfigured. In the recently completed court-ordered Florida redistricting plan late in 2015, for example, the court changed 23 of the state’s 27 districts because eight seats were declared invalid. In Virginia’s situation, where just one district was tossed for legal reasons, five seats were altered.
There is no primary in District 1, as Rep. Butterfield is unchallenged in the Democratic contest and no Republican filed as a candidate. Butterfield faces only third party opposition in the general election.
District 12, however, is another story. Rep. Adams has two Democratic opponents in addition to seeing a two-candidate Republican primary also underway.
District 3, that of Rep. Walter Jones (R-Farmville/Jacksonville/Greenville), will most likely change because of the large borders it shares with District 1. Right now, a major Republican primary campaign among Rep. Jones, former Bush Administration official Taylor Griffin, and USMC veteran Phil Law is coming close to culmination. In 2014, Griffin held Jones to a 51-45 percent re-nomination victory.
Contested primary campaigns, at least in one party, are occurring in Districts 4 (Rep. David Price, D-Chapel Hill), 5 (Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-Winston-Salem), 6 (Rep. Mark Walker, R-Greensboro), 7 (Rep. David Rouser, R-Wilmington), 9 (Rep. Bob Pittenger, R-Charlotte), and 13 (Rep. George Holding, R-Raleigh). The court-ordered redistricting could conceivably affect all of these districts.
There is a good chance, but not a certainty, that the new plan won’t change District 2, where a major primary campaign is unfolding against Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-Dunn). The congresswoman has four Republican opponents and is a competitive situation.
The court’s mandate of a re-draw by Feb. 19 could prove unreasonable. Republicans will challenge the ruling, the legislature will have to re-assemble redistricting teams, the maps must be crafted, and then both houses of the legislature will have to introduce, hold public hearings, schedule the committee and floor action, and then pass the changes. Gov. Pat McCrory (R) would then sign the legislation. On the other hand, the Republican-controlled legislature could put forth a “least change” map, one that might only affect four total districts.
This situation could end in many ways, including postponing the March 15 state primary. It is too early to tell how this situation will end, but some clarifying action will likely occur later this week.