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Upcoming North Carolina election dates in jeopardy

North Carolina lawmakers will not have access to critical census data needed to adjust municipal, legislative, and congressional district lines before September 2021, according to a report first published by the New York Times late Thursday.

“The Census Bureau has concluded that it cannot release the population figures needed for drawing new districts for state legislatures and the House of Representatives until late September,” the Times reports. “That is several months beyond the usual April 1 deadline, and almost two months beyond the July 30 deadline that the agency announced last month.”

The Census Bureau is expected to make a formal announcement soon about the delay, which will cause significant issues in conducting 2021 city elections in roughly 45 cities across North Carolina, including Raleigh and Cary, which elect council members by district. This delay also is expected to affect North Carolina’s 2022 congressional and legislative primary elections.

Gerry Cohen, North Carolina’s former director of legislative drafting, who spent three decades working on the state’s complex redistricting issues, says the delay to the data will also make North Carolina’s planned December 2021 legislative and congressional candidate filing period and March 8 primary date extremely difficult to meet.

“I think it is more likely than not that the March 8 primary will have to be to be delayed until at least late April or early May,” said Cohen.

The delay will affect legislative and congressional primaries, as well as a host of other races on the 2022 ballot, including high-profile primaries for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Under the new timeframe suggested by the Census Bureau, the General Assembly would not be able to consider redistricting plans until October.

Cohen says the time to draft the plans, allow for public review and to allow for third parties to propose alternative maps makes a December filing period extremely unlikely.

Cohen also points out that once maps are finalized, elections officials need significant time to make preparations to ensure voters are assigned to the correct districts.

As noted by the New York Times, “the challenges extend beyond just drawing up districts. State and local election officials need time after new political maps are approved to redraw voting precincts and overhaul voter rolls to ensure that everyone is directed to the proper place to vote.”

That time frame becomes highly problematic when you consider for a March 8 primary, absentee ballots must be sent out 50 days before the election, which would be the third week of January.

Redistricting has routinely delayed elections in North Carolina. Until 2016, North Carolina normally held primary elections in May. That year the General Assembly moved the primary to March in part so North Carolina could theoretically have a larger say in the presidential primary process, an issue not at play in 2022. Cohen believes at this point a May primary, as North Carolina executed for decades, is possible.

North Carolina factors key into Republican efforts to recapture the U.S. House in 2022. According to the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice, “the four big states to watch are Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, where the GOP enjoys complete control over the redistricting process.”

In North Carolina, legislative and congressional redistricting is solely a matter for the General Assembly. The governor is unable to veto new election maps.

North Carolina currently has 13 U.S. House seats, with eight seats held by Republicans and five by Democrats. Earlier in the decade before court intervention, Republicans held a 10-3 advantage. New census numbers are expected to grant North Carolina a 14th congressional district.  Republicans are likely to draw a map without using partisan data, but with Democrat voters already highly concentrated in a handful of metro areas across North Carolina, a new congressional map favoring Republicans by 9-5 or 10-4 margins is possible.

No state in the union has had more redistricting cases reach the U.S. Supreme Court than North Carolina, and whatever maps Republicans draw in 2021 are likely to be challenged in state and federal court by Democrats.

The compressed time frame offers challengers less time to contest maps before the election. This could be critical in North Carolina. With Democrats currently holding a 4-3 advantage on the N.C. Supreme Court, any delays on the state level could work to the advantage of Republicans, who could capture the majority on the state Supreme Court by winning just one of two seats up for election in 2022.

Meanwhile, roughly 45 of North Carolina’s municipal elections are now thrown into chaos. Those 45 cities elect some of their council seats by districts in elections held this year.

According to a 1990 law, if those cities can’t redistrict by the time filing opens this year (July 26), they can delay their elections until 2022. Holding elections under the current districts would require action by the General Assembly and approval by various courts.