‘Unmitigated chaos’: Monday’s court ruling gives way to confusion

Lawmakers look at maps of congressional districts.
Lawmakers look at maps of congressional districts. clowenst@newsobserver.com

North Carolina congressional candidates, who have campaigned for months in districts across the state, awoke to a sudden new reality Tuesday morning.

“Chaos,” said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist from Catawba College.

That’s the result of a ruling by a federal three-judge panel that called the state’s 13 congressional districts unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. The judges ordered new districts and gave the General Assembly until Friday to make the case that it can draw a plan that’s constitutional, or the court would hire a “special master” to do it.

Either way, that could mean new districts, new elections and even new candidates in November.

“You don’t know where the districts are, you don’t know when the election is, you don’t know who the candidates are, you don’t know whether there’s going to be a primary,” Bitzer said. “Voters are probably . . . thinking, ‘I don’t know what’s going on.’ And they’re not alone.”

State lawmakers are expected to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and let elections go on as scheduled.

“It would be unprecedented for (North Carolina) to actually implement new maps at this late stage,” said Dave Wasserman, an analyst with the Cook Political Report. “And I’m still skeptical courts and election administrators could pull off such a Herculean feat.”

Uncertainty all around

So what would that mean if they did pull it off?

“If you have new districts, I think you’re going to have everybody re-evaluating what they’re going to do,” said Republican consultant Paul Shumaker.

Candidates who’ve spent months and fortunes campaigning in one district could find themselves in another.

“They move three precincts in central Charlotte and all of a sudden (Democrat) Dan McCready is in the 12th District,” said Dan Barry, Union County’s GOP chairman.

Democrat Dan McCready. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

McCready is now running against Republican Mark Harris in the 9th District, which runs from southeast Charlotte to Fayetteville. A new district and new primary could draw Harris into another primary against the likes of Rep. Robert Pittenger, a three-term incumbent whom he beat in May. Pittenger could not be reached.

Incumbents across the state could be thrown into a district against another incumbent, forcing them to decide in which district to run. Unlike in state and local races, there’s no residency requirement for congressional candidates.

If there’s uncertainty for candidates, there’s also uncertainty for voters.

The three-judge panel held out the possibility that there could be congressional primaries on Nov. 6, Election Day, with general elections in early January. Or there might be no primaries at all, raising the possibility of a crowded field of candidates.

North Carolina has had a long history of courts ruling against its voting districts.

In 1996, a federal court found North Carolina congressional districts to be unconstitutional racial gerrymanders, but allowed elections to go ahead. But the court said the state couldn’t use the districts after 1996. Other elections were delayed. In 2002, congressional primaries were pushed to September. And in 2016, a court delayed congressional elections for weeks.

‘Unmitigated chaos’

Despite the uncertainty, Democrats praised Monday’s court ruling while Republicans condemned it, suggesting that an election could come too late for new lawmakers to take office by the time a new Congress starts in January.

“What the court suggests is simply impossible,” Senate President Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement. “I’m not aware of any other time in the history of our country that a state’s Congressional delegation could not be seated, and the result would be unmitigated chaos and irreparable voter confusion. The Supreme Court must step in to correct this disastrous decision.”

Republican Mark Harris File photo rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

But with just eight sitting members, the high court could split 4-4, which would allow the lower court ruling to stand. Rick Hasen, an election law expert from the University of California-Irvine, said that with the 4-4 ideological split, a decision could come down to two justices who generally side with liberals. “The key to this,” he wrote on his blog,“ is (Stephen) Breyer and (Elena) Kagan.”

Candidates, meanwhile, tried to stay focused.

“No matter what happens, I’m going to keep fighting for the people of North Carolina who deserve better,” McCready said in a statement.

And President Donald Trump is still coming to Charlotte on Friday to raise money for Harris and U.S. Rep. Ted Budd of the nearby 13th District.

“Our philosophy is just to continue to campaign aggressively and enthusiastically in the 9th District and let the court process play itself out,” said Harris strategist Andy Yates. “Nothing has really changed for us. Everything is still the same in our world.”

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill

Even amid the uncertainty, candidates continued to run their campaigns.