News: CJ Exclusives

Lawmakers Race To Draw New Maps, Reschedule Primary

Congressional primary would move to June 7 unless Supreme Court stops earlier lawsuit

Final votes will be taken today approving 13 redrawn congressional districts, along with a revised election calendar pushing back the congressional primary from March 15 to June 7, and eliminating runoff primaries for all election races this year.

The Senate debated and passed the new congressional boundaries on a 32-15 vote mostly along party lines Thursday, the first of an expected two-day special session called by Gov. McCrory to deal with the redistricting. The House is set to consider that bill in a morning session.

The House passed the new election date and schedule on a 71-32 vote. That bill moves to the Senate. Both votes were mostly along party lines, with Republicans supporting and Democrats opposing the measures.

The major logistical shifts in the 2016 election landscape were made necessary earlier this month by a federal court opinion declaring the 1st and 12th congressional districts, already used in 2012 and 2014, were drawn with a predominant focus on race, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

The three-judge panel of the U.S. Middle District for North Carolina hearing that case ordered the state to reconfigure the congressional boundaries and postpone the congressional primary until a new plan receives court approval.

“While we wish North Carolina voters didn’t have to deal with the chaos, costliness and uncertainty associated with an eleventh hour ruling changing the current primary election, we are pleased the Senate was able to pass a fair, legal, and compact congressional map that harmonizes traditional redistricting principles,” Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a written statement.

“This is the least gerrymandered and most compact congressional map that North Carolina has seen in decades, and we believe it should address the federal trial court’s concerns by its tight deadline,” Berger said.

Berger said the map addresses:

  • The specific problem named by the federal trial court with the current map by removing race as criteria.
  • Public calls for compact districts by splitting fewer counties and precincts.
  • Public calls to eliminate the “serpentine” shaped districts the state has seen for decades.

“It is unfortunate that North Carolina taxpayers have to endure complications so close to an election, but we are pleased that the House could alleviate a small portion of the chaos by establishing clear parameters for a second primary date for congressional races,” said Rep. Bert Jones, R- Rockingham.

Jones is vice chairman of the Joint Select Committee on Congressional Redistricting. He and Rep. Jon Hardister, R-Guilford, led the efforts to draft and pass HB-2: 2016 US House of Representatives Primary.

Jones said it required “quite a monumental effort” on an extremely short time frame.

The bill sets the congressional primary for Tuesday, June 7. The filing period for candidates begins at noon March 16 and closes March 25. Candidates must be affiliated with their political party at least 75 days before registering to file with that political party.

“You cannot run for two separate offices at the same time,” Jones said. Current law already prohibits that. “You are allowed, if you are currently the nominee for a different office in the state, [to] file to run for Congress. But if you win that primary on June 7 then you would have to withdraw from one of those races,” and could not run for both offices in the November election.

There will be no second primary during the 2016 election cycle, including both the March 15 and June 7 primaries, Jones said.

However, if a second primary is needed for a judicial vacancy election or some other reason, it would be held with the June 7 congressional primary.

Maps currently in place will be used to choose presidential electors because “it would be practically impossible” for the political parties to replicate the time-consuming filing, convention, and campaigning processes in time for this year, Jones said.

Any ballots cast on March 15 in the congressional election would be declared null and void, and the results would not become a public record.

Should the U.S. Supreme Court issue a stay of the lower court ruling, the new map and election schedule changes would not take effect.

Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, unsuccessfully attempted o to amend the scheduling bill to push the state’s presidential primary back to June 21. That attempt failed by a 32-69 vote.

“That’s big” to eliminate the runoff primary in order to stick with a March 15 primary that Republicans wanted, Jackson said. Some candidates’ strategy, especially in races with three or more vying for the seat, is to deny a front-runner the 40 percent of the vote needed to win a primary and hope for a better result in a one-on-one runoff.

“You’re taking that away from them,” Jackson said. “It affects anybody with a primary with more than two candidates in it.”

House Minority Leader Larry Hall, D-Durham, argued for the amendment, saying “the focus “is really going the wrong way” by worrying about the impact on candidates rather than the voters. Delaying the presidential election until late June would allow for efforts to educate voters about the new districts and new candidates.

“We made major changes in the election to make it harder” already to vote by requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls. Hall said.

“We have an opportunity to take more time” to ensure the election is run right, Hall said. “Let’s think about the interest of North Carolinians. Let’s think about the interests of the voters.”

Republicans countered that it would cost about $9.5 million to $10 million to hold a second primary.

House Majority Leader Mike Hager, R-Rutherford, said he saw no reason to move all primaries back to June “when this [redistricting] issue only affects 13 [congressional] races.”

“Let’s settle the 120 House races. Let’s settle the 50 Senate races,” and Council of State races as had been scheduled, and for which ballots are already printed, Hager said.