A handful of lawsuits which threatened to upend North Carolina’s November elections resolved quietly over the past few days. With the situation settling, several N.C. political experts offered insights into the winners and losers.
In 2016, North Carolina’s congressional districts were redrawn after federal judges scrapped two of the 13 districts citing racial gerrymandering.
The new maps led Common Cause N.C., the League of Women Voters, and the Democratic Party to file a new lawsuit claiming the new districts weren’t only racial but also partisan gerrymanders. They claimed the maps unconstitutionally favored Republicans over Democratic candidates.
A three-judge panel agreed with the plaintiffs, but in June the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case and returned it to the lower court.
On Aug. 27, the three-judge panel issued a lengthy decision tossing out all 13 districts as illegal gerrymanders. The judges ordered new districts before this year’s election. Parties had until Aug. 31 to submit their arguments in the case.
On Sept. 4, the three-judge panel ruled the 2018 election will be held using the current district maps. This gives the U.S. Supreme Court the opportunity to hear the case and decide on whether to throw out the 2016 maps. Any new maps wouldn’t be used until 2020.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide who wins in the lawsuit over the 2016 congressional district plans, but not before the 2018 election. For now, the winners are the voters.
“For the first time we at least know what the ballot is going to look like in November,” Chris Cooper, professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University, said. “So in that perspective, the short-term winner is the voters.”
Patrick Gannon, spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said the election board has been authorized to start ballot production to make them available by the Sept. 22 deadline so they can be sent to military voters and other U.S. citizens living overseas.
“We finally have a better understanding of what is on the ballot, what we are going to have a choice to vote over, and who we are going to choose between,” Cooper said.
The long-term victor depends on whether the U.S. Supreme Court will affirm the lower court’s ruling and require new maps. The current maps stay in effect for November 2018, but by 2020 there could be new congressional districts.
Cooper said there’s no way the new maps wouldn’t benefit the Democratic Party, at least on the margins.
Andy Taylor, professor of political science at the School of International and Public Affairs at N.C. State University, said Republicans won in the short term.
“The question is, What does winning constitute?” Taylor said. “I think in the congressional redistricting case it is just punting it past the election.”
Before the federal court agreed to let the maps stand, the possibility existed of an alternative election schedule with new maps. This would have been worse, Taylor said, for Republicans when compared to drawing new maps for the 2020 election.
“But, of course, we don’t know what will happen. This is a long story,” Taylor said. “It is interesting though that the 4th Circuit [Court of Appeals] did throw out the idea that there is the sort of thing as an illegal partisan gerrymander.”
The Supreme Court has never stated how far a political party could draw districts to its advantage to give its candidates an illegitimate edge.
“Long term is kind of the question mark,” said Jonathan Kappler, executive director of the N.C. FreeEnterprise Foundation. “This could be the main partisan gerrymandering redistricting case for the Supreme Court to consider given the timing and the court record here.”
During the July special session, the General Assembly approved six constitutional amendments for voters to consider in November ballot.
- The constitutional right to hunt and fish
- An expansion of the constitutional rights of victims and their families
- A requirement of state-approved photo identification to vote in elections
- A change in how judicial vacancies are filled
- A change in how members of the state elections and ethics board are appointed and a reduction of the board’s size from nine members to eight.
- A reduction in the state’s income tax rate cap from 10 percent to 7 percent
While the first two amendments weren’t challenged in court, the other four were. The N.C. NAACP and Clean Air Carolina filed lawsuits challenging the four other amendments, claiming they were misleading. Gov. Roy Cooper cited legislative overreach to challenge the constitutionality of the elections board and judicial vacancy amendments. Cooper also claimed they were misleading.
A state Superior Court panel didn’t find the voter ID and tax cap amendments misleading and left them on the ballot, but it ruled the elections board and judicial vacancy amendments were problematic. The court struck those two amendments from the ballot.
Instead of appealing the ruling, the General Assembly convened another special session in August. Lawmakers rewrote the elections board and judicial vacancy amendments. Cooper challenged the reworked amendments, but this time the Superior Court panel rejected the governor’s argument.
Cooper appealed the decision, but the state Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling. All six constitutional amendments will appear on the ballot.
With voters set to decide all the constitutional amendments, it looks as if the Republican-led General Assembly can claim victory in this arena. Cooper said it’s not a complete win for Republicans.
“The ballot amendment piece, more of a win for Republicans, but what I think it is interesting how politicized these amendments have gotten. …The vast majority of the time they tend not to be controversial,” Cooper said. “The Republicans certainly won because they are getting the ballot wording they want, but the fact that there is this much of a fight around it is not great for the Republican Party.”
Kappler said the governor can claim at least a partial victory.
“He won that initial court victory and kind of forced the General Assembly’s hand a bit to revamp those two constitutional amendments and kind of change and limit them,” Kappler said.
Although all six constitutional amendments will appear on the ballot, they give something for the Democratic Party to rally over. This could affect voter turnout.
“The Democratic Party has been able to create a unified no message on these ballots which is not a good thing for Republicans,” Chris Cooper said.
While the constant fighting raised the profile of each case and increased voter awareness, Kappler said the back-and-forth made things tough to follow.
“I think any kind of additional attention which would have garnered more voter engagement has been mitigated by the confusing circumstances surrounding these particular issues,” Kappler said.
Kappler said the national political environment and Democratic enthusiasm could mean a slightly greater number of Democratic voters turn out for the election.
“I think it is like a tempest in a teapot where the segment of the population that is really paying close attention to this was already engaged. So, therefore, it doesn’t really move one way or the other in outcomes or voter turnout,” Kappler said.
During a July special session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 3, which prevented judicial candidates from changing party affiliation less than 90 days before filing. North Carolina Supreme Court candidate Chris Anglin, who switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican a few weeks before filing, sued the General Assembly.
In August, the N.C. Court of Appeals sided with Anglin and the other challengers. The General Assembly didn’t appeal the ruling. Anglin will appear as a Republican on the November ballot to challenge the Republican incumbent Justice Barbara Jackson and Democratic challenger Anita Earls.
Anglin is the clear winner, since he will be on the ballot with the partisan affiliation of his choice. More generally, political experts pointed to the Democratic Party as the victor.
“On the matter of Chris Anglin, no one can get in his head and know what true motivation he has, but this one appears like a little bit of a Democratic win electorally,” Cooper said.
Donald Bryson, president of the conservative Civitas Institute, said Anglin will likely split the Republican ticket and, thus, benefit the Democratic Party.
“Anita Earls is the clear winner and Barbara Jackson is the clear loser,” Bryson said. “I don’t know if Anglin is a political pawn in this case, but he is playing the role as a spoiler.”
Perry Woods, Anglin’s campaign manager, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Bryson said the long-term impact of this ruling could be a liberal 5-2 majority on the N.C. Supreme Court if Earls wins.
The Anglin case probably won’t have a huge impact on voter turnout as people tend not to pay much attention to judicial elections.
“People know very little about judicial elections,” Taylor said. They go on party labels and now the Republicans can be split in a purple state. What is normally a close election, you got to figure that is going to help the Democrats.”