Politics & Government

NC House sets congressional primary on June 7; Senate OKs new map

Democratic Sen. Dan Blue, left, and Republican Sen. Bob Rucho talk before a morning session of the N.C. Senate on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. The legislature convened to redraw the state’s congressional map.
Democratic Sen. Dan Blue, left, and Republican Sen. Bob Rucho talk before a morning session of the N.C. Senate on Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. The legislature convened to redraw the state’s congressional map. clowenst@newsobserver.com

The drama around the state’s congressional districts got a confusing new chapter Thursday with a proposed reshuffling of the state’s primary elections.

The state House voted not to proceed with the congressional primary March 15 and instead hold it June 7, effectively hitting the restart button on those campaigns.

All other issues on the ballot – including races for governor and a statewide $2 billion bond issue – still would be decided March 15.

But in a major change, the House proposal also said no runoff elections would be held in March or June. Currently, if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote, a second primary is held. But if this change is enacted, the final winner would be the top vote-getter in the initial vote this year, no matter how many candidates compete.

That could have implications for several key races, including the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate and the Republican primary in the 2nd Congressional District – where a large field reduces the chance that any candidate could get 40 percent of the vote.

In another twist, candidates who won a March 15 primary then could file to run for a congressional seat June 7. If they won in both primaries, they would have to withdraw from one, within a week after the June 7 results were certified.

That means, for example, a legislator who already had been renominated for a seat could run in a congressional primary, and continue to seek re-election as a legislator if he or she lost the latter vote.

That provision could benefit any legislators who want to run in the new 12th District (Mecklenburg County) or the new 13th District (Greensboro to Statesville), where the current incumbent doesn’t live in the district.

The House voted 71-32, mostly along party lines, to make the changes. The Senate is expected to approve them Friday.

The whole process started when a three-judge federal panel ruled Feb. 5 that the 1st and 12th congressional districts were illegal racial gerrymanders and ordered them redrawn by Friday.

Earlier Thursday, the Senate approved new maps drawn to satisfy that panel’s ruling. The vote, along partisan lines, was 32-15. The House is expected to follow suit Friday.

That plan makes major shifts in the congressional map. The approved version is very similar to a map released Wednesday, though it was changed slightly to ensure that Rep. Alma Adams, a Greensboro Democrat, and Rep. Mark Walker, a Summerfield Republican, do not live in the same district. The plan puts Adams, who is in her first term representing the 12th District, into a redrawn 13th District. Walker is in his first term in the 6th District.

The law does not require Congress members to live in the district they represent, only in the state.

Republicans said the map split fewer counties and precincts than any redistricting plan in the past 30 years.

Senate Democrats objected to the map. The federal panel’s ruling said race was a predominant factor in drawing the 1st and 12th districts, said Sen. Floyd McKissick, a Durham Democrat, but Republicans have gone too far in creating districts that do not consider race at all. The map “is not consistent with the Voting Rights Act,” McKissick said.

Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican and a redistricting chairman, said the judges were clear that racially polarized voting does not exist.

And Sen. Jerry Tillman said partisan gerrymandering is the way of politics.

“It’s been done this way since we had constitutional government,” the Archdale Republican said. “Your predecessors wrote the book on it. It’s called, if you win, you draw the maps.”

A provision in the primary-scheduling bill that the House approved would allow the new primary format to go forward unless the U.S. Supreme Court puts the lower court’s deadline on hold or upholds the state’s appeal before March 15.

That means candidates running for Congress won’t know until the final day before the primary whether the newly drawn districts will remain or be replaced by the previous maps that have been challenged.

Legislators have been waiting since Tuesday to hear from the Supreme Court on their request for a stay and appeal. If the high court stays the three-judge panel’s order, the plans for the new maps and the new election setup would come to a halt.

If the panel’s ruling stands, the current congressional candidates would have to file to run again, beginning at noon March 16 through noon March 25. Their names still would appear on the March 15 ballots, which have been printed, but votes cast for them would not be certified. About 22,000 absentee ballots have been sent out, elections officials said Thursday.

In addition to the lawsuit that led to the panel’s Feb. 5 ruling, a suit challenging the state’s legislative districts is scheduled to go to trial in April, and its outcome could lead to another round of redrawing maps. The judicial uncertainty prompted Rep. Darren Jackson, a Wake County Republican, to try, unsuccessfully, to push all the primaries back to a single date in late June.

“We are proceeding today as if we know what’s going to happen in the federal courts,” Jackson said.

Jackson said candidates will have to campaign not knowing whether the March 15 voting will count. He said he thinks it will take federal courts a significant amount of time to review whether the maps are constitutional.

Rep. David Lewis, a Harnett County Republican who is chairman of the redistricting committee, replied: “Your question points out the chaos the chairs have lived with since the court ruling.”

Kim Strach, executive director of the State Board of Elections, said there are 13 potential runoffs under the current law. Runoff elections tend to draw voter turnout in the low single digits, she said. She said runoffs usually cost up to $10 million.

Staff writer Colin Campbell contributed.

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