GREENSBORO — Barring last-minute intervention by the U.S. Supreme Court, North Carolinians will be voting in congressional primaries a few months later than planned — and under a totally new district map.
The N.C. House approved the redrawn congressional districts Friday, a day after the N.C. Senate did, meeting a deadline imposed by a federal court ruling.
The new U.S. congressional district lines were needed after federal judges struck down the 1st and 12th districts as being racially gerrymandered. The ruling gave the General Assembly until Friday to approve new maps.
The bill became law upon passage by both chambers. It does not need to be signed by the governor.
The new map faced withering criticism from the Democratic minority in the House on Friday as it had in the Senate on Thursday. But after a long and sometimes tense debate, the new map was approved 65-43.
“It seems to me that what these new maps do is substitute political gerrymandering for racial gerrymandering,” said state Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Guilford). “But it gets the same result. It packs African Americans into these three districts, and it’s all for partisan political advantage.”
Harrison also said she was frustrated by a truncated process wherein she said the opinions and suggestions of the minority party were disregarded at every stage.
State Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) disagreed.
“I think the maps are solid,” Hardister said. “It was a fast and difficult process, but I think we did the best we could under the circumstances. (We) adopted criteria. We discussed it, we debated it, we voted on it. And I think the maps we have now look a lot better than what we had.”
Hardister points to the 12th District, which under the old map snaked along the Interstate 85 corridor between Charlotte and Greensboro in a manner some called a brazen example of political gerrymandering by North Carolina Democrats.
“That district has been ridiculed not just in North Carolina but across the country,” Hardister said.
The new 12th District is more compact, but it doesn’t include its current representative, Greensboro Democrat Alma Adams. Her residence is now in a newly drawn 13th District that will be tough for any Democrat to win.
That was a bone of contention with many Democrats in the General Assembly. They observed that when Republicans realized on Thursday they had accidentally drawn U.S. Rep. Mark Walker (R-Greensboro) out of the 6th District, a quick amendment was made to put him back into it. No such effort was made for Adams.
Congressional candidates do not need to live in the districts they represent, but running from outside the district can be politically difficult.
Adams said in a statement late Friday that she will still run in the 12th District, which under the new map only represents most of Mecklenburg County.
“While there’s still a lot that could change — the proposed maps that the Republicans passed may be illegal — I want you to know that I am committed to serving,” she said in the statement. “I won’t let Republicans obstruct the important work we’ve been doing to protect women’s rights, improve our public education system, and fight for the people of North Carolina.”
U.S. Rep. George Holding, a Republican, was drawn into the 4th District, which has been represented by U.S. Rep. David Price, a Democrat, for decades. Carter Wrenn, a political consultant for Holding, said Friday that Holding plans to run for the 2nd District seat held by U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, which would result in a primary contest.
The state Senate, for its part Friday, approved a state House bill moving the congressional primary from March 15 to June 7. The vote was 29-15. The bill, which also eliminates runoff elections for 2016, will need to go to the governor for approval.
Because ballots have already been coded and printed, congressional candidates’ names will still appear on the March 15 ballots but will not be counted or reported. A new filing period will be held March 16-25.
Under current election law, candidates must get at least 40 percent of the votes cast in a primary election to avoid a runoff. If they fail to meet that standard, the second-place candidate can call for a runoff election.
The loss of that runoff option could make a big difference in a lot of races.
“That’s pretty messed up,” Harrison said. “Suddenly you no longer have runoffs and you have candidates in races that were counting on those runoff primaries.”
Hardister was a primary sponsor of the House bill that changed the primary date and eliminated runoffs for this year. It’s not a perfect solution, he said Friday, but it’s what needed to be done this year.
“We’re drastically simplifying the process this year and under these circumstances,” he said. “It’s going to save money on administration. It’s not ideal to have three or four elections in a year. It costs a lot of money and requires an enormous amount of administrative work.”
The State Board of Elections let legislators know that it would need to push back the congressional primary to at least June in order prepare for it, Hardister said. That meant a possible runoff election as late as August in a political season that has already been disrupted.
“It’s a very unusual year for sure,” he said. “But when you have a court ruling coming at such a late hour you have to scramble and just try to put your best foot forward.”
All these changes may be thrown out if the U.S. Supreme Court issues a stay, allowing the old maps to stand for this election cycle.
Republican leaders say they still hope that may happen.
Late Friday, attorneys for the state and for the voters who sued over the 1st and 12th districts wrote to the Supreme Court, alerting it to the new map and congressional election calendar.
The state’s lawyers also filed the legislation with the federal court in Greensboro that issued the Feb. 5 decision striking down the districts.
The plaintiffs or someone else could formally ask the three-judge panel that ruled against the two districts to scrutinize the new boundaries or the judges could call their own hearing.