Larry Leake, the board's chairman, said July 20 was the latest date that the primary could be held and still meet requirements for organizing an election, such as printing ballots.
"The earliest time that we have a decent shot at getting the primary off is July," Leake said.
The board had to set a new date by Monday, the date that candidates for state and local offices in North Carolina were supposed to begin filing. The state's primary originally was scheduled for May 4.
"It gives everyone a date to work toward," Leake said. "Hopefully, it will cause the Department of Justice and the judges to say: 'That's when North Carolina needs to have its primary.'"
By law, the state General Assembly must draw new legislative and congressional districts every 10 years to reflect population changes. It is a job that has proved especially difficult for North Carolina lawmakers over the past few years.
The district maps under debate were approved last year by top legislators from both parties. Democrats control the Senate and share power with Republicans in the state House of Representatives.
But some GOP leaders -- including GOP gubernatorial candidates Patrick Ballantine and Bill Cobey, and state chairman Ferrell Blount -- said the maps illegally dilute minority voting strength to bolster white Democrats and have sued in state court to block them.
The state has asked a three-judge federal panel in the District of Columbia to approve the maps as meeting the requirements of the federal Voting Rights Act. But the U.S. Justice Department has not yet filed a response indicating whether it will oppose federal approval.
The Justice Department also must separately consider some provisions in the elections legislation passed by state lawmakers in November.
Along with the new primary date, board members set a new filing date for candidates -- April 26. Absentee voting will begin May 31.
After the decision by the election board, both Republicans and Democrats were quick to point fingers.
"The Democrat-controlled Legislature took up the redistricting plan so late in the year that it didn't have time to preclear the voting rights act," said Bill Peaslee, of the state Republican party.
"The fact of the matter is Republicans can't have it both ways," said Scott Falmlen, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "If the General Assembly had been called into special session earlier in the year, they would have moaned and groaned that money was being wasted by bringing the Legislature back to town without there being some agreement."
Falmlen said the delay will also force state Democrats to change how they select their preference for president. The party will abandon the primary system in favor of county caucuses on April 19.
"Clearly, the county caucuses are radically different than what Democrats are used to," Falmlen said.
Both parties said that the State Board of Elections did the right thing by not delaying the primary indefinitely, but instead setting a date.
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