Despite the advancing calendar, North Carolina voters could return to the polls this year to elect new state lawmakers after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ruling that the current districts are illegal. But one key Republican lawmaker said new elections this year are unlikely.
The high court Monday upheld the decision by the district judges in the so-called Covington case. But it said the lower court order, in ordering new elections, “failed to meaningfully weigh” necessary considerations. It outlined three criteria for district judges to use.
Rick Hasen, law professor at the University of California-Irvine and an election law expert, said an election this year is possible.
“I don’t think that’s likely, but it’s still possible,” he said Wednesday. “The court … did not preclude it.”
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Political scientist Davis McLennan of Meredith University agreed that elections this year are possible if unlikely. “The practical reality is we’re halfway through June and it’s looking very difficult,” he said.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice filed a request Tuesday with the U.S. Supreme Court to expedite action by a panel of judges who last year declared 28 legislative districts illegal racial gerrymanders that diluted the impact of black voters.
Anita Earls, the coalition’s executive director, said lawmakers “are already under a court order to draw new districts and the only question is whether there’s time for a special election in 2017.”
The Supreme Court said in deciding whether to hold special elections this year, the lower court should consider three criteria including “the severity and nature of the particular constitutional violation,” the disruption to the elections process and “the need to act with proper judicial restraint when intruding on state sovereignty.”
In the request filed at the Supreme Court Tuesday, Earls and other attorneys called it “time-sensitive,” especially give the General Assembly’s expected adjournment in a few weeks.
The defendants and “millions of other North Carolina voters have already been subjected to three election cycles under the unconstitutional enacted state legislative districting plan, including one election cycle following the district court’s decision in this case in August 2016,” they wrote.
Rep. David Lewis, who chairs the House Elections Committee, said he doesn’t expect elections this year.
“I feel very confident that there will not be,” he said. “Simply based on the clock.”
In order to have new elections, lawmakers would have to draw new districts and set new candidate filing periods while election officials scramble to print ballots and marshal an unexpected election. But Earls said there’s a precedent.
In 2002, a judge ruled a new legislative redistricting plan unconstitutional. Superior Court Judge Knox Jenkins drew new districts himself in June. In July legislators set a September primary. The general election was held in November.
Another possibility is a special election sometime next year. “We think that, too, would be a waste, but it would certainly be a possibility,” Lewis said.
Monday’s Supreme Court ruling in the Covington case was the third in recent weeks involving N.C. districts.
Rucho v. the Supreme Court
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case named for former Republican Sen. Bob Rucho’s last month. But that doesn’t mean he likes their decision.
The high court ruled against North Carolina in a redistricting case known as Dickson v. Rucho, and asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider whether lawmakers relied too much on race in drawing congressional and legislative districts.
In her opinion,. Justice Elena Kagan made several references to the former senator from Matthews who helped draw the plans.
Kagan said a lower court had found the testimony of former Democratic U.S. Rep. more credible than that of Rucho. She said Watt testified that Rucho had told him that GOP leaders told him to “ramp the minority percentage” up in Watt’s congressional district to comply with the Voting Rights Act.
“Watt recalled that he laughed in response because the VRA required no such target,” Kagan wrote. “And he told Rucho that ‘the African-American community will laugh at you’ too.”
Rucho said Tuesday that the account isn’t true.
“The Supreme Court and the appellate court ignored the law, ignored the evidence, and came up with a decision I’m still scratching my head about,” he said. “The testimony (Watt) presented was absolutely false yet they gave him credence.”
Watt, now director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, could not be reached.