Ahead of court ruling, NC Republicans try to clean up their own map-making mess

·3 min read
Travis Long/tlong@newsobserver.com

If you’re confused by the timeline of North Carolina’s 2022 elections, you’re probably not the only one. But don’t worry, Republicans have a solution: changing the timeline yet again.

In a party line vote, lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday that would delay the primaries by another three weeks, meaning voters would head to the polls for the primaries on June 7 instead of in May. It’s intended to give lawmakers more time to redraw maps should the North Carolina Supreme Court overturn the existing iterations, which are the subject of ongoing gerrymandering lawsuits scheduled to be heard by the high court early next month.

As one might expect, the two parties disagree on whether the move is really necessary. Democrats argue that the decision should be left to the courts, which can delay the primaries themselves if needed. Republicans say that making the shift now would “maintain confidence” in the elections process and eliminate the “confusion and chaos” of operating within a short time frame.

If the maps are overturned, state law says the legislature must first be given a minimum of two weeks to rectify them before the court can propose an alternative solution. Depending on when the Supreme Court issues a ruling, two weeks could just barely fit into the timeline that the State Board of Elections says must be followed in order to remain on track for a May primary.

Republicans seem to be worried that two weeks isn’t enough time for them to draw up a new set of maps. If the primary is delayed until June, the court could give them more time. But the real question is whether lawmakers can be trusted to draw fair, balanced maps even if they were given the time to do so.

History says probably not. Nearly every set of maps drawn by North Carolina Republicans in the past decade — as well as some drawn by Democrats before that — have faced legal challenges and invited national scrutiny for aggressive racial and partisan gerrymandering.

If the remedial maps don’t measure up, the Supreme Court can choose to take a different route, such as appointing an outside arbiter to draw the maps. But giving lawmakers more than 14 days to come up with a solution wouldn’t provide much flexibility if the maps they produce fail a second time. Holding a June primary for a November general election presents a serious time crunch under any circumstances, especially if runoff elections are needed in some races. Giving Republicans the benefit of the doubt would be risky considering they haven’t exactly earned the Supreme Court’s goodwill, and there already isn’t much time to spare.

Besides, two weeks is more than enough time to produce viable maps, even if Republicans try to claim otherwise. With the help of today’s computer programs, lawmakers have managed to draw maps in that time frame before. In 2019, when a three-judge panel determined that North Carolina’s maps were an illegal partisan gerrymander, Republicans were given the minimum 14 days to redraw them. Not only did they manage to get it done in time, they were given strict instructions by the court, ultimately resulting in maps that struck a much fairer partisan balance than those being debated right now.

That’s what should happen again. If the current maps are declared unconstitutional in February, the court should give lawmakers two weeks to fix them. Further delaying the primary may be unnecessary right now, but it does give the courts enough time to come up with better maps should Republicans falter again. Delays and prolonged court battles in the last decade led to elections based on maps that were later found unconstitutional. That should be avoided now.

Of course, North Carolina wouldn’t be in this situation had Republicans simply drawn fair maps from the start. The courts should avoid further disruptions to the process if possible, but do whatever is necessary to ensure elections can be conducted fairly.