RALEIGH — A great cloud of uncertainty surrounds state lawmakers’ efforts to create a new map of North Carolina’s congressional districts, but it is certain that Robeson County will be affected, according to one political operative.
“Obviously, new congressional maps are going to affect us. That’s probably the only certainty,” said Phillip Stephens, Robeson County Republican Party chairman.
There is the distinct possibility that Robeson County could be placed back in a district that leads east to Wilmington rather than west to Charlotte, he said.
“But anything is possible,” Stephens said.
The General Assembly reconvened Wednesday after being on a two-week recess, and drawing a new congressional map for the 2020 elections was at the top of the agenda.
“We’re going to be here until we get the redistricting done,” Senate leader Phil Berger said.
House Republicans identified late Wednesday a map proposal they hoped to advance on Thursday, and Berger said his chamber would aim to approve districts by Friday. When the session ends will depend on when Republicans in both chambers can agree to the same set of boundaries. Unlike other legislation, redistricting plans aren’t subject to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto.
Whether or not the lawmakers will get a new map approved in time for use in the upcoming election cycle is uncertain, Stephens said. If it is ready in time, there is one group of people that will be affected.
“We know it will affect candidates,” he said. “Consider we had an open congressional seat nearly two years that has only recently been filled.”
Republican Dan Bishop beat Democrat Dan McCready in the Sept. 10 special election for the North Carolina District 9 seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“The new furniture smell is still lingering in his office and it’s necessary for him to be in re-election mode already,” Stephens said.
But this seems to be the new political normal, he said.
“We’re either going to get a congressional candidate we’ve worked with recently or a congressional candidate we’ve worked with in the past,” Stephens said. “Either way, we can make it work and they will plug seamlessly into the campaign cycle.”
A panel of three state judges determined on Oct. 28 that the current U.S. House lines can’t be used because they’re likely unlawful partisan gerrymanders. But, the judges stopped short of ordering a replacement map, saying they lacked authority at this stage of the lawsuit filed by Democratic and independent voters. But they encouraged the General Assembly to redraw the map on its own to avoid delaying the March 3 congressional primary. The State Board of Elections has said it needs a map by mid-December to do so.
Republicans opposed to the partisan gerrymandering ruling still are going ahead with the congressional remap.
The State Board of Elections does not know whether or not the new map will be ready for use in the 2020 election cycle or what effect it might have on the elections process, said Patrick Gannon, board spokesman. One time factor is that the finished map must be submitted to the courts for review.
Regardless, the new map won’t have an effect on current congressional candidates.
“Congressional candidates are not required to live in their district,” Gannon said. “They may choose at the time of filing which district they want to run in.”
Republicans won 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats under the current lines, which the GOP-controlled legislature approved in 2016. A final map could give Democrats a better chance at winning additional seats, making it harder for Republicans nationally to retake the U.S. House in the November 2020 elections.
A final map could leave more than one incumbent living in the same district.
The judges suggested the legislature follow a redrawing process similar to what they used when the same judges ordered new state House and Senate districts in September, finding excessive partisan bias violated the state constitution.
Members of a special House-Senate committee meeting since last week to assemble map options agreed to keep election results and the racial makeup of voting blocs out of the drawing process.
But at the committee’s public hearing on Wednesday morning to take citizen input, several of the roughly 20 speakers said they couldn’t trust GOP mapmakers to ignore partisan considerations. They pointed to years of federal and state court rulings striking down North Carolina legislative and congressional districts that were drawn by Republicans and that they determined were tainted by racial and partisan bias.
Republican legislators “are like a pack of hound dogs released into a meat-packing plant,” citizen Gary Boos told the committee. “They just can’t help themselves. So, the only way to stop this is … don’t let the hound dogs in the meat packing plant.” He and other speakers want courts or a special commission to redo the maps, instead of lawmakers.
A few speakers criticized Democrats who filed several of this decade’s lawsuits, accusing them of seeking political power through the courts, rather than the ballot box. “The judicial fiat that we have here is short-circuiting democracy,” speaker Wayne Boyles of Pinehurst said.
Berger’s office and House Speaker Tim Moore said late Wednesday the two chambers would vote Thursday on two other non-redistricting bills on a pair of topics negotiated among the two chambers and Cooper’s administration.
One is to distribute additional money for disaster recovery following a series of hurricanes. Another seeks to beef up cash balances at the Department of Transportation, which has been bleeding funds due to hurricane-related road repairs and unfavorable legal rulings over property rights of way for future highway loops.
But Moore said he didn’t anticipate an agreement between Cooper on funds to begin Medicaid’s shift to managed care in February, meaning the rollout likely must be delayed.