Raleigh, N.C. — North Carolina voters will head to the polls twice this spring – once to vote for their U.S. House members and once for everything else – unless the U.S. Supreme Court steps in and sides with Republican lawmakers.
The state Senate voted 29-15 Friday morning to approve a new election schedule that is contingent on the court's actions. Later in the day, House members gave final approval to newly drawn congressional maps on a 65-43 vote.
"There's a chaos still in this process, and the courts have given us that," Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, said.
Earlier this month, a trio of federal judges declared that lawmakers unconstitutionally relied too heavily on race when they drew two congressional districts in 2011. Those judges gave the legislature until Friday to redraw the maps.
Senators approved 13 new districts on Thursday. Roughly speaking, those districts split fewer counties than the old maps and do not pack as many black voters into the 1st and 12th districts, the two that were at the heart of the court challenge.
Primary voting is already underway in the state. Under the timing bill passed by lawmakers, the March 15 primary would go ahead as scheduled. All races on that ballot will count except for votes cast for U.S. House, which would be thrown out in favor a new primary to be held on June 7. The timing bill also does away with primary runoffs in 2016.
However, there's a "light switch" provision in the bill. If the U.S. Supreme Court either issues a stay or otherwise acts to set aside the lower court's ruling, the new maps are thrown out, the June 7 election is called off and the March 15 ballot counts for all races, including Congress.
That means congressional candidates running on the maps drawn in 2011 will have to keep working until March 15. After that, candidates will have to switch over to their new districts. Lawmakers said that would create extra costs for candidates and confusion for voters.
"It is important that those voting early fill out their ballot as they want to vote," Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown, R-Onslow, said.
Gov. Pat McCrory will have to sign off on the bill changing the election timing. However, he will not get a say on the maps, which were the subject of debate in the House Friday afternoon.
New maps, old controversies
Those maps were largely the same as those rolled out earlier this week that contained 10 Republican-leaning districts and three Democratic-leaning districts.
Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, called that "overreaching" because more than 40 percent of the state's voters are Democrats and Democratic congressional candidates won roughly half the vote in 2014.
However, the newly drawn maps have less of a partisan edge than the ones drawn in 2011, giving GOP candidates somewhat less of a head start. They also limit how much the districts sprawl, compacting the 12th Congressional District that once snaked from Charlotte to Greensboro into Mecklenburg County.
Democrats argued that Republican leaders had merely replaced an unconstitutional racial gerrymander with an unfair, and possibly illegal, partisan gerrymander.
"We ignore what the voters are telling us at our peril. They do not want to see partisan gerrymanders like what the Democrats used to do and like the Republicans are doing now," Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake, said. "Let’s join together and at least acknowledge that the public does not think that the definition of fair is the childish statement, 'You did it first.'"
But Republicans were incredulous, saying they had merely done what the courts ordered them to do. They rebuffed calls for an independent redistricting committee, saying that legislative majorities have always used the ability to draw district maps to their advantage.
"We keep hearing this call for a somehow independent redistricting committee," Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, said. "Somehow, there’s this one perfect individual out there that’s going to have no bias and is going to have the wisdom of Solomon, and we’re going to have these perfect maps. And ladies and gentlemen, I would conclude that that is not going to happen because it’s not possible to find that individual."
Some lawmakers held out hope that the Supreme Court would act by the end of Friday, wiping away all the work done this week. Others, however, said that, with ongoing memorials for recently deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, a stay was not likely to be forthcoming Friday afternoon.