N.C. political maps ruled unconstitutional. What’s next?

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The North Carolina Supreme Court overturned the state’s three new political maps last Friday night in a 4-3 ruling, three months after the Republican-led state legislature first passed the contested districts.

Each of the maps would have given Republicans a sizable advantage in future elections, with the new Congressional map expected to give Republicans a 10-4 or 11-3 advantage in 2022. Those who sued have alleged the maps use unlawful partisan gerrymandering and dilute the voting power of Black residents in many districts.

Republican leaders — and the Republican majority trial court who let the maps stand in a 2-1 decision Jan. 11 — said partisan gerrymandering is not unconstitutional and that redistricting is an inherently political process.

The N.C. Supreme Court’s Democratic majority said the maps favor Republicans so much that they “are unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt under the free elections clause, the equal protection clause, the free speech clause and the freedom of assembly clause of North Carolina’s constitution.”

The ruling and dissent, included in a report by the News & Observer, is only 20 cumulative pages, with a more detailed opinion from the judges expected.

“Today’s decision gives the General Assembly the chance to do right by the people,” said Rep. Robert Reives II, Chatham’s Democratic representative in the N.C. House, Friday, “and enact fair district maps that accurately reflect the makeup and the will of North Carolina voters.”

Now, the political districts must be redrawn.

District maps would need to be finalized no later than Feb. 18 for an “orderly preparation” for the rescheduled May 17 primary, the State Board of Elections previously said, but state law says the General Assembly must receive at least two weeks to remedy maps before another plan can be imposed by the court. Under that timeline, new maps must be filed by Feb. 18, and then the trial court that initially heard the case and let the maps stand will have until Feb. 23 to make a decision regarding the redrawn maps.

On Monday, N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters at the N&O and WRAL that Republicans do plan to draw new maps, possibly even this week — this after Democratic lawmakers said earlier on Monday they hadn’t heard anything from Republicans regarding a schedule for redrawing them. At the same time, Republicans are still considering appealing their loss to the U.S. Supreme Court.

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat who filed a legal brief in the case arguing that the maps were unconstitutional, announced the supreme court’s ruling on Friday.

“Under our constitution, political power must be ‘vested in and derived from the people’ (and) our government must be ‘founded upon their will only,’” Stein wrote on Twitter. “Our elected leaders flout that principle when they seek to perpetuate their power irrespective of the will of the voters.”

Under the current timeline for a May 17 primary, candidate filing and rescheduled municipal elections will resume at 8 a.m. on Feb. 24 and end at noon March 4. That means filing could begin the day after new maps are approved, which could complicate things if either party appeals the trial court’s decision.

The state Supreme Court already moved the primary once, from March 8 to May 17, due to the pending gerrymandering suits. Republican lawmakers passed a bill on Jan. 19 that would have again pushed the primary back — this time to June 7. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed that bill on Jan. 28, saying the decision should be left up to the court.

“This bill is an additional attempt by Republican legislators to control the election timeline and undermine the voting process,” Cooper said in a release at the time. “The constitutionality of congressional and legislative districts is now in the hands of the North Carolina Supreme Court and the Court should have the opportunity to decide how much time is needed to ensure that our elections are constitutional.”

Sen. Natalie Murdock — Chatham’s Democratic incumbent representative in 2022 under the now-overturned maps — wrote ahead of the trial that “we should expect the map drawers to at least strive to draw district maps that reflect the nature of who North Carolina is today,” even if the state constitution permits partisan advantage in redistricting.

“If you were to gauge North Carolina’s changing demographics over the past decade based on Republican congressional and legislative maps, you’d think that our state has grown significantly whiter, older, and more rural since 2010,” she wrote in a Jan. 27 Medium piece for N.C. Senate Democrats. “The Republican-drawn maps reflect the North Carolina that the GOP wants to see, not North Carolina as it truly is. Republicans want to gerrymander away our state’s growth and our identity. We can’t let them do that.”

Sen. Valerie Foushee, who has represented Chatham and Orange counties for eight years, joined her Democratic colleagues in praising the court’s decision. Foushee, who would no longer serve Chatham if reelected under the now struck-down maps, announced in November that she is running to represent the Triangle in the 6th Congressional District of the U.S. House.

“This is great news for Democracy!” Foushee said on Twitter on Friday. “Once again, the courts have sided with voters and with our Constitution.”

In Chatham, Board of Elections Director Pandora Paschal previously told the News + Record, “We are moving forward with planning to conduct the Primary Election(s) as scheduled on May 17, 2022, until we hear otherwise.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.

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