UPDATED, 8:00 p.m., to add link to court order.
In the middle of North Carolina’s uncertain scuffle over congressional redistricting, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen during the 2020 primaries.
But one thing is for sure, say political scientists. Incumbents probably won’t suffer if candidate filing is stalled by the ongoing congressional redistricting case, Harper v. Lewis.
On Sept. 27, plaintiffs backed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee — an organization formed by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — sued the N.C. General Assembly over congressional maps drawn by Republicans in 2016. The 13 districts were subject to an extreme partisan gerrymander, plaintiffs said.
In late October, Superior Court Judges Paul Ridgeway, Alma Hinton, and Joseph Crosswhite issued a preliminary injunction in the case, blocking the state from using its congressional map. While the judges didn’t issue an order to draw new districts, they strongly advised legislators to follow processes used to redraw legislative districts in September. In that case, Common Cause v. Lewis, the same three-judge panel struck down North Carolina’s legislative maps, ruling them unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. Redraw the maps, and do it transparently, judges said. Lawmakers were given two weeks and were barred from using political or racial data to draw the new districts. Cameras were used to broadcast the entire process.
In Harper v. Lewis, lawmakers repeated the performance and immediately redrew congressional districts. A new map was enacted Nov. 15.
On the same day, plaintiffs filed a motion asking the court to review the new districts. Defendants also filed two motions: one for summary judgement and one to expedite the court’s ruling.
Now, all eyes are on the court. Waiting.
“We’re in this nebulous land of uncertainty,” said Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College. “Also known as a Wednesday in North Carolina politics.”
Since the court has retained jurisdiction to move the primary date for congressional elections — or for all of the state’s primaries — the outcome of elections in 2020 may see ripple effects, Bitzer said.
Candidate filing for the state’s political races opens Dec. 2 — the same date the court may rule.
But if the court grants plaintiffs’ motion to review the map, then rejects the districts, the process would stall, said David McLennan, a professor of political science at Meredith College. Judges would have two options, he said. They could send the map back to legislators with clear instructions, or they could assign a special master to oversee the task.
A delay is only imminent if things are gummed up more than two weeks, McLennan said. If judges decide to push things back until the first of the year, the congressional primary would probably be held in May.
If congressional and/or legislative races are separated from presidential primaries March 15, races for North Carolina’s 13 seats in Congress will be disrupted, said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.
“It will plausibly change calculations for candidates,” he said. “There are incumbents from both parties who need to think about taking control of the situation.”
For example, Democratic voters will be fully invested in their competitive presidential primary, and will be more likely to turn out on Super Tuesday than they will be to show up for a later congressional primary, Taylor said.
Since only the most dedicated voters show up for primaries that are separated from presidential contests, Bitzer said, incumbents could maintain an advantage over challengers.
“We are a tribal bunch,” he said of North Carolinians.
Unless Republicans and Democrats feel disenfranchised by their respective parties, the truly loyal will show up to vote along party lines. Even if they have to so a couple months later than usual.
For now, all anyone can do is wait, Bitzer said.
“We’re all just kind of in a holding pattern.”
UPDATED, 8:00 p.m. The three-judge panel late Wednesday afternoon issued an order setting a hearing for Monday, Dec. 2. Link to the court’s order is here.