Another Supreme Court case. Another Supreme Court loss. That’s three of three for North Carolina Republicans, who were told again this week by the highest court in the land that they’re not very good at drawing maps.
On Monday, the Court affirmed a lower court ruling that found 28 state legislative districts, drawn in 2011, were illegal. That’s on top of the Court ruling last month that two congressional districts drawn by Republicans were similarly unconstitutional. The justices also told the N.C. Supreme Court last week it needed to reconsider an earlier affirmation of congressional and legislative districts.
The reason for each Republican loss: The maps they drew disadvantaged blacks by packing them into districts and diluting their voting power. It was wrong, and it also was costly, as Republicans have spent more than $8 million defending what amounts to political discrimination.
Now the state is facing another costly question: Will it have to hold a special state legislative election this year with redrawn maps?
That’s what a panel of federal district judges ruled late last year, noting that: “While special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander.” Challengers in North Carolina v. Covington, the case in question, say there’s still time to hold a special election this year.
Not so fast, the Supreme Court justices said Monday. While the Court declined to say whether a special election should be held, it told the lower court that it hadn’t give the question proper consideration.
Among the issues that troubled the justices: The district court judges, in calling for a special election, effectively suspended a provision in the N.C. constitution that required legislators to reside within a district for a year. That would be impossible for a legislator who was moved into a new, redrawn district.
The justices also worried that special elections might disrupt “the ordinary processes of government,” and about whether such a drastic solution matched “the severity and nature of the particular constitutional violation.”
We understand those who say “yes.” They believe, and we agree, that voters shouldn’t be subject to results from invalid legislative districts – and that Republicans shouldn’t be rewarded for the drawing of those districts.
But holding special elections in 2017 would now border on impractical. An election this year would require maps to be redrawn, then survive inevitable challenges. Candidates would then need to be recruited in perhaps several districts. There would certainly be a shorter absentee voting period and little or no time for a second primary. It’s also likely that municipal election schedules would be affected.
All of which the district court will likely consider in the coming weeks. Given the Supreme Court’s strong hints on the matter, North Carolinians shouldn’t be surprised if the lower court changes its mind on 2017 elections and tells everyone to wait until November 2018.
We hope and expect that the courts won’t let N.C. Republicans get away with mere tinkering of their illegal maps. Better yet, perhaps enough lawmakers will realize that legislative and congressional maps should be drawn by a nonpartisan Redistricting Commission. Because lawmakers, regardless of party, just don’t do it very well.