Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — If history is any guide, North Carolina is headed for a lawsuit-riddled election cycle next year. One of the consequences could be a delayed primary for state offices, a possibility that could hurt incumbents during an election season that’s already projected to be infused with anti-incumbency fervor.
The Tar Heel State’s primary is scheduled for the first Tuesday after the first Monday in May. But lawsuits over a new redistricting plan could mean that the primary will be put off for months, as occurred during the last redistricting in 2001.
The U.S. Justice Department precleared the new maps in early November, determining that the plan didn’t run afoul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law meant to protect the interests of minority citizens. The Republican-controlled legislature OK’d the new maps — which reflect population shifts documented in the 2010 Census — earlier this year.
Shortly after the Justice Department’s decision, Democrats and liberal advocacy groups filed suit against the plan on the basis that it isolates minority voters and doesn’t respect county boundaries or communities of interest.
“The review by the Department of Justice focused on one narrow aspect of the plan and preclearance was not unexpected,” said House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange. “We continue to believe this redistricting proposal is divisive, highly partisan, and legally deficient.”
Republicans lobbed the political ball right back at Democrats. “The Obama Justice Department’s stamp of approval on our redistricting plans confirms what we’ve said all along: these are fair and legal maps that give a strong voice to all voters,” said Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, in a joint statement.
Preclearance surprised some political observers, particularly because Democrats control the federal Justice Department, while Republicans command the General Assembly and were responsible for creating the new maps.
“This is the first since the Voting Rights Act has taken place with a Democrat in the White House,” said Ferrel Guillory, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and founder of the Program on Public Life. “All the other times it was either a Nixon administration or a Reagan or a Bush administration.”
The last round of redistricting could be a guide for next year. In 2001, the Democratic-run General Assembly passed the first hurdle — gaining Justice Department preclearance for its maps — but failed the second hurdle when a state court struck down the plan. A retooled version of the maps also failed in court, which made room for a district court judge to enforce his own district boundaries for the primary and general election in 2002.
Due to the litigation, the May primary was pushed back to September. That gave nominees eight weeks to campaign for the general election. Normally, they would have had over six months.
Another mitigating factor in 2002: The General Assembly’s “short session,” which typically convenes in May and doesn’t last beyond late July, didn’t adjourn until October — a full month after the primary.
Factoring in the delayed primary, the lateness of the short session had political implications for incumbents, many of whom were in Raleigh while their opponents campaigned back in their districts. Democrats maintained control of the Senate, but Republicans won the House by a razor-thin 61-59 majority. (Republican Rep. Michael Decker switched parties, producing an even 60-60 split for the 2003-2004 session.)
On the federal level, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole benefited from the late primary because Democrats Erskine Bowles (the eventual nominee), Dan Blue, and Elaine Marshall were locked in a hard-fought three-way primary.
“If you have contentious primaries, then it’s better for the opponent who doesn’t have a contested nomination,” said Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. “There is less time to reunify the party, to raise money for the general election.”
The political climate next year is different in several key ways. For one, 2002 was a midterm election without a presidential or gubernatorial contest, while races for both executive offices will top the ballot in 2012.
Another difference: The United States’ unemployment rate stood at 6 percent in November 2002. Economists predict the rate will be 7.7 percent when voters go to the polls in November 2012, the highest since the 1976 presidential election.
At the federal level, the presidential primary will occur in May regardless of how long the primary for state and congressional offices are delayed. That raises the specter of North Carolina having to schedule two primaries — one in May for the presidential race, and a second for other offices.
Adding another layer of complexity, the Democratic National Committee is slated to hold its convention in Charlotte the week of Sept. 3. If the May primary is delayed, the rescheduled date could conflict either with the short session in spring or the convention in late summer.
“If you put the primaries later than the Democratic convention, that leaves hardly any time for general election campaigning,” Guillory said. He also suggested that Republican leaders could orient the legislative schedule to allow more time for campaigning.
“Especially if you’re on the Republican side, you might get a permissive schedule to help you out,” Taylor said, “and if there are a few Republicans getting a permissive schedule, then everyone gets one, because everybody is campaigning on the same calendar.”
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.