You don’t have to be a meteorologist to understand that the gathering storm clouds are threatening the 2018 elections. The high-pressure system at the genesis of this storm is the result of redistricting.
Following the 2010 census, all states were required to draw new lines for congressional and legislative districts so as to comply with the shifts in population. The 2011 North Carolina redistricting plans for both congress and the legislature have faced court challenges and federal courts have declared them each unconstitutional, ordered new maps drawn and then declared the redrawn maps to be unconstitutional.
This week, a three-judge panel of federal judges told lawmakers to go back for a third time and redraw the maps for our 13 congressional seats. In 2016, the judges declared the districts were racially gerrymandered; now they say they are gerrymandered to be too partisan and ordered the legislature to redraw them within the next two weeks, while also saying they would concurrently hire a “special master” to undertake the task.
Another three-judge panel, in the Covington case, met the first week in January to determine whether legislative maps redrawn by our General Assembly comply or if they will accept maps that drawn by the “special master” they retained.
Adding further drama to the impending storm is legislative action that threatens to redistrict court districts in our state. Lawmakers have already suspended judicial primary elections in 2018 and that decision is being challenged in court for its constitutionality.
Here’s the impending storm watch. How can candidates decide whether or not to run for elective office if they don’t know in which districts they live and are qualified to run?
The time for making those decisions and formulating plans for a campaign is bearing down on them. Five weeks from now, on Monday, Feb. 12, the filing period for candidates to run in 2018 is due to open, closing Friday, Feb. 28. Primary elections are now scheduled to be held Tuesday, May 8.
It is theoretically possible for both courts to issue decisions on these cases in enough time for candidates to meet filing deadline requirements, but you can bet that whatever decisions are reached will immediately be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, creating further uncertainty, possible delays or challenges about election validity.
There were rumors floating around Raleigh last week that the legislature might delay primary elections and that might make sense, but the dates we’ve heard for rescheduled primaries is August or even September. There’s nothing magic about holding primaries in May, in fact some believe there is too much time between our primaries and general election dates. But there needs to be sufficient time between the primary and general election dates to allow winners to raise money and conduct a vigorous November campaigns. We experienced a similar situation following the 2000 census, when finally the court drew new districts, forcing primaries to be postponed. Summer turnout numbers were disappointing.
We’ve had three elections since the contested 2011 districts were drawn and this needs to be the last one under our current system. It is time our legislators did the right thing and created an independent redistricting commission to draw maps following the 2020 census. They have plenty of time to get it right.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.