Democracy 101: As Elections Near, What Happens When The Courts Nix Districts?
This is part of our election-year civics series, Democracy 101. Click here to find more of our stories about important issues in North Carolina politics.
Federal judges have once again said North Carolina’s congressional districts are illegal, because mapmakers were too partisan in the way they drew them.
The ruling, which came down this week, could potentially throw voters for a huge loop, since Election Day is just a few months away.
This decision is a bombshell for several reasons.
Number one: it’s yet another court ruling against drawing congressional districts that the court thinks are just too unfair toward one party or another. In North Carolina’s case, Republicans controlled the process.
Another reason: Election Day is November 6th, just over two months away. Candidates are already raising money, and ballots need to be printed. Most importantly, there could be a lot of confusion among voters if this doesn’t get clarified quickly.
This isn't the first time congressional district lines have been thrown into disarray. State leaders have already had to redraw those lines once because the courts ruled that mapmakers used racial bias in the way they drew district lines.
But now, according to Salem College professor Elizabeth Wemlinger, the court is saying that the people in charge of the mapping process – Republican leaders – chopped up the electorate in such a way that it’s too unfair to Democratic candidates.
“This decision really signals that – not only for North Carolina, but nationwide – the court is less accepting of allowing political parties – whether you’re Democrat or Republican – to draw districts they feel unfairly bias one party,” Wemlinger says.
This is a big deal. Traditionally, federal courts have only ruled against maps that were too racially biased. Now, many of those lower courts are saying districts that are too partisan are also unfair.
But what does this all mean for North Carolina? For starters, it could means more lawsuits, trying to get the decision put on hold or reversed. It also seems possible the legislature will take another shot at the maps, given how critical this election is.
“That will have a big impact in November, as the court has indicated they want some action before the actual elections,” Wemlinger adds.
The court’s majority opinion actually makes some suggestions on what the state could do here. For example, the court suggests that North Carolina could just redraw the maps more fairly, then hold general elections in November. Or, if state leaders think we need a new primary, they could come up with new maps, hold the primary in November, and then hold a special, general election in January.
For their part, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger called the court’s suggestions “impossible,” and said if the U.S. Supreme Court did not put a halt to the decision, it would create “unmitigated chaos” and “irreparable voter confusion.”
Whether that’s true or not, Elizabeth Wemlinger says the court's landmark decision Monday could affect everything about how voters choose their congresspeople this fall.
“It has implications on who you’ll actually vote for, what district you’ll actually be in, and if we see primary candidates – if these districts are moved or changed in some way – they’ll have to figure out if new primaries need to be done as well,” she says.
There's also a bigger picture to consider here: this decision could cause ripples far beyond North Carolina. After all, in elections where the president is not on the ballot (like this one), the party not in power tends to win back seats in congress.
What's more, election forecaster Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight says any new North Carolina district maps could turn two Republican seats blue, potentially contributing more momentum to what experts predict will already be a good year for congressional Democrats.
The bottom line here is this: pay close attention the next few weeks, because North Carolina’s congressional elections may about to be turned upside down.
Editor's note: This story has been updated from an earlier version.