RALEIGH — Federal judges told the North Carolina legislature Tuesday to redraw its own districts by March 15 to replace ones the judges previously struck down and to hold a special election using the new maps in November 2017.
The ruling also means those elected to the state House and Senate a few weeks ago in districts where boundaries now will be altered would serve just one year, not two as expected.
“The fact of the matter is, districts are interconnected so when you start moving some lines, that's going to effect the districts around them,” political expert Eric Heberlig told Channel 9.
The same three-judge panel last summer said 28 of the General Assembly's 170 districts were illegal racial gerrymanders, but decided it was too late in the election cycle to redraw new maps and conduct elections under them this month.
Attorneys representing legislative mapmakers wanted until next July to redraw boundaries and hold elections at the next usual election date in November 2018. Lawyers for the voters who successfully sued to overturn 19 House and nine Senate districts wanted new maps in place in late January and said it wasn't right for voters to have to wait another two years to cast ballots under lawful maps.
Sen. Joel Ford, D-Mecklenburg, won re-election three weeks ago and supports a fix for gerrymandered districts.
“I do believe there should be competitive districts and as a candidate looking to run for re-election,” he said. “I'm OK with that.”
"While special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander," the judges wrote Tuesday, adding that despite concerns about lower voter turnout, "a special election in the fall of 2017 is an appropriate remedy."
Republican lawmakers who helped draw the original maps in 2011 said Tuesday night that they'll appeal the decision, which they called "politically motivated" and in blatant disregard of the state constitution's directive that House and Senate members are elected to serve two-year terms.
The ruling "would effectively undo the will of millions of North Carolinians just days after they cast their ballots," Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said in a release.
“So, of course we're disappointed,” Rucho told Channel 9 Wednesday. “To me this is judicial overreach at its worst.”
Anita Earls, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers praised the ruling. "A special election in the affected districts in 2017 is the best way to protect the rights of all North Carolinians," she said.
The judges' order said special elections would choose new legislators in the 28 districts and in other districts that must be redrawn to comply with their gerrymandering decision.
In an earlier legal brief, attorneys for Lewis and Rucho said the General Assembly likely would have to redraw 116 districts because lines in surrounding districts must change, too.
Having a special election under updated boundaries also could give Democrats an earlier opportunity to try to end the veto-proof majorities Republicans have held in the House and Senate since 2013. The 2011 maps helped GOP leaders expand majorities they won in the 2010 elections.
Last August, the same panel — U.S. Circuit Judge Jim Wynn and District Judges Catherine Eagles and Thomas Schroeder — unanimously declared that GOP legislators had failed to justify creating so many districts with black voting-age populations above 50 percent.
The judges said a March 15 deadline for lawmakers to draw the districts also would give them time to review the boundaries to ensure the problems have been duly addressed.
The order says North Carolina will hold a primary election for the General Assembly in late August or early September and the general election in early November 2017, with dates set by the legislature. The judges pointed out that the usual municipal elections next year could help boost turnout.
Tuesday's order comes a week before the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a similar racial gerrymandering lawsuit involving North Carolina's congressional districts. It could affirm, limit or overturn the August ruling on the legislative maps.
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