RALEIGH — North Carolina’s May 8 primary elections for legislative and congressional seats remain in place after judges refused Friday to delay them while they consider lawsuits over new Republican-drawn districts. Judges said a delay wouldn’t leave enough time to fully resolve the case.
The three Superior Court judges unanimously rejected a request by Democratic voters and elected officials, as well as civil rights and election watchdog groups, to postpone those contests until July 10 and prevent the redistricting maps from being used for now in this year’s elections.
The ruling should not be interpreted as one on the merits of the arguments made in the two lawsuits, Wake County Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway said after an hour of oral arguments. The allegations of racial gerrymandering are serious and warrant more scrutiny by the panel, Ridgeway said.
Rather, he said, denying the preliminary injunction is based upon “pragmatic considerations,” including the proximity of the coming elections. Candidate filing is Feb. 13.
“The court is not persuaded that a delay of the primaries … will have any meaningful, practical value or materially aid in protecting the rights asserted by the plaintiffs in the course of this litigation,” Ridgeway said in court. The plaintiffs’ proposed election schedule — with filing starting April 27 — still would have left little time for meaningful appellate review and for the Legislature to fix any boundaries that could be ruled unconstitutional, he said.
“The court finds and concludes the plaintiffs are not entitled to the injunctive relief they seek,” said Ridgeway on behalf of the panel, which also included Superior Court judges Alma Hinton of Halifax County and Joseph Crosswhite of Iredell County.
A lawyer for the state that argued the boundaries are legal, a preliminary injunction is not needed and the delay would have created confusion by possibly creating two primary dates — one in May for Council of State and judicial races and the proposed constitutional amendment to limit marriage and another in July for the General Assembly and Congress.
“What they’re asking is that this court create confusion by disrupting the election schedule, condensing the election schedule and providing two primary tracks to be going one at one time,” Special Deputy Attorney General Alec Peters told the panel. Such a dual process, he said, could cost the state and the counties several million dollars in additional expenses.
Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg and chairman of the Senate Redistricting Committee, said after the hearing that the ruling brings certainty to the election process.
“The reality is the election goes forward, and that is the real big decision today,” he said.
The new boundaries, which would be used through the 2020 elections, are expected to favor Republicans in keeping their new majorities in the Legislature and could help unseat up to four Democratic congressmen, according to district data.
Anita Earls, an attorney representing plaintiffs, said she doesn’t know whether her clients will ask the state Supreme Court to intervene and grant the injunction. Regardless, she said, she’ll continue to press her case in court. Democratic leaders at the Legislature said they were encouraged by Ridgeway’s comments about the inherent issues in the lawsuits.
“This case is far from over,” Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, and House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, D-Orange, said in a prepared statement.
The consolidated lawsuits contend the GOP-penned maps violate the state and federal constitutions by needlessly bundling black voters in majority-black districts to reduce their political power and splitting hundreds of voting precincts in the process, disproportionately affecting black citizens.
Earls told the judges the split precincts will create hundreds of ballot versions in some counties, creating potential confusion with voters and making elections more difficult to administer.
“Returning to extremely segregated districts is a harm and an insult to the dignity of black and white voters in the state,” Earls said.
Ridgeway said those who sued raised important questions about the extent to which racial classifications were used in the drawing of the plans by the GOP-led Legislature last year.
It would not “be correct to interpret this decision as minimizing the harm that can be associated with governmental acts that tend to stigmatize and separate citizens by their color of their skin,” Ridgeway said, speaking for the court, which has yet to rule on the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuits.
The two sides have argued whether court rulings give the state a safe harbor to avoid U.S. Voting Rights Act violations by drawing districts that have black voting-age populations of more than 50 percent whenever feasible to preserve minority voting power. Lawyers for the state and legislative leaders say yes, but Earls and her colleagues say that goes too far and ignores racial progress that has allowed black-white coalitions to elect their preferred candidates.
Chief Justice Sarah Parker appointed the panel, as required by state law. While judges participate in nonpartisan elections, two of the three judges on the panel are registered Democrats.