News: CJ Exclusives

N.C. Congressional Candidates: Should We Be Campaigning?

Federal court has not issued map ruling; primary is June 7

Former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, seen here at an April 2015 meeting on redistricting reform, represented the State Board of Education Feb. 7 in both arguments before the high court. (CJ file photo)
Former N.C. Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr, seen here at an April 2015 meeting on redistricting reform, represented the State Board of Education Feb. 7 in both arguments before the high court. (CJ file photo)

U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson is “astonished” that a three-judge panel of the U.S. Middle District of North Carolina is holding the state’s congressional candidates in electoral limbo by failing to rule on whether new district boundaries will be used for the June 7 primary.

“We haven’t heard a peep out of them,” said Hudson, a Republican seeking re-election to a third term in the 8th Congressional District, who spoke by phone with Carolina Journal.

“It certainly leaves a lot of open questions” if the court rules and a legal challenge is launched, whether the primary is pushed back because no decision is reached in time, “or the court draws its own maps,” Hudson said. “Anything is possible. It’s a mess.”

“I’m just astonished that the court hasn’t even had a hearing on the new map” with just weeks to go before the primary, Hudson said.

“It’s a problem if you’re a candidate,” Hudson said. Congressional districts encompass new geographic areas after the maps were redrawn to comply with a February court order saying the old districts were unconstitutional under the federal Voting Rights Act.

Candidates had been campaigning in the old districts, but now they must introduce themselves to new voters, and spend unanticipated time and campaign money in unfamiliar towns and counties.

“We’re out there campaigning, and the folks aren’t even aware that there’s a primary” because they believe they already voted in the March 15 statewide primary, Hudson said. “It’s a real disservice to the people if they’re disenfranchised by the confusion.”

The congressional races appeared on the March ballots, which were printed prior to the court order. But those results were not tabulated and were sealed from view.

State Board of Elections spokeswoman Jackie Hyland said the board has not received any word from the three-judge panel indicating whether it would accept or reject the new congressional maps.

“If we don’t have maps, we can’t hold an election,” Hyland said. In the meantime, the board is proceeding under the premise the election will proceed as scheduled.\

“Absentee voting has started for the June 7 primary, and the counties have already sent out 55,000 absentee mail-in ballots,” she said. Absentee voting began April 19.

“The court’s not looking at convenience and how fair it may be to the immediate election process. They’ve got to examine the new plans pursuant to the law and Constitution that they utilized in striking down the first plan,” said former state Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr.

The length of time that has elapsed without a decision “sort of tells you it may be a little harder” to rule on the case than originally anticipated, Orr said.

In February, the court struck down the congressional redistricting plan the General Assembly adopted in 2011, saying it unconstitutionally packed too many black voters into two minority districts, thereby diluting black voting strength in other districts. Two congressional elections have taken place since the maps were enacted.

The Republican-led legislature, over Democrats’ objections, drew new maps avoiding any racial considerations, saying they were configuring the districts purely on a partisan basis in an attempt to assure a 10-3 GOP majority. They reasoned that U.S. Supreme Court rulings have said electoral districts may be drawn legally for partisan advantage.

The delay in rendering a decision might be due to the three-judge panel “trying to figure that issue out, and … there’s a real lack of clarity from the federal courts” on Voting Rights Act cases, Orr said.

“Essentially, the rule is you apply race when you’re supposed to apply race, and don’t apply race when you’re not supposed to apply race, and who knows what that means?” Orr asked.

“The court wants to get it right, so you take as much time as needed to research and analyze, and if they have a decision that’s convenient to the state, fine,” Orr said. “But if it’s inconvenient, that’s just the way the process works.”

Hudson said members of the congressional delegation are talking among themselves about how to proceed with their campaigns while not knowing if they will be knocking on doors and sending out mailers to people who might not end up in their districts after a ruling.

Due to campaign finance laws, some donors might not be able to donate to their favorite candidates to campaign in newly designed districts since they previously contributed and their money was spent before the court blocked the March 15 congressional primary, Hudson said.

“I’ve got an opponent who’s spending money against me in my primary, so we’ve got no choice but to campaign,” Hudson said. Tim D’Annunzio is challenging Hudson in the primary.

“I’ve been out talking to people, visiting people in the district, … burning up the telephone lines, and trying to get to as many events as possible,” said state Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie, who is running in the 13th District along with 22 other candidates. “It’s just not enough time to have a really good dialogue with everybody.”

He did not mince words in assessing the three-judge panel’s decision to throw out the old districts and toss the congressional primary into turmoil.

“Once the election cycle starts, they should just let it run its own path,” Brock said.

“The liberal activist judges have just gone haywire,” Brock said. “Maybe we need to have term limits for our federal judges.”

Neither U.S. Rep. Alma Adams nor campaign manager Sam Spencer responded to a request to comment on how the legal limbo is affecting her campaign. Adams, a Greensboro Democrat, is running for re-election in the 12th District, even though she no longer lives within its boundaries due to the remapping.

Spencer sent a news release that Adams’ campaign had raised $505,159, and another with results of an EMC Research poll showing her as the front-runner with 37 percent, followed by three Mecklenburg County Democrats: former state Sen. Malcolm Graham at 28 percent and state Reps. Tricia Cotham and Carla Cunningham, each at 11 percent. Seven Democrats are seeking the nomination the 12th District.