Despite gerrymandering ruling, business as usual for local board of elections

Published 3:35 pm Monday, February 8, 2016

By Josh Bergeron

With two North Carolina congressional districts declared racially gerrymandered, including one in Rowan, state officials are pleading for a pause in enforcement and telling local boards of elections to continue with business as usual.

A three-judge panel in North Carolina’s Middle District Court on Friday declared the 1st and 12th congressional districts unconstitutionally drawn, ordered new maps be drawn by Feb. 19 and halted “any elections for the office of U.S. Representative until a new redistricting plan is in place.” Specifically, the court found the congressional districts to be racially gerrymandered.

The ruling tosses the March 15 primaries into a state of uncertainty, but the State Board of Elections is telling local elections directors to continue issuing absentee ballots.

“Do not make any change to your current administration of the March primary,”said State Board of Elections General Counsel Josh Lawson in a Friday email. “We will inform you immediately if and when our litigation counsel at the Attorney General’s Office indicates new procedures are required.”

When reached by phone Monday, Lawson said the state is encouraging voters to complete ballots as normal.

“We’re encouraging everyone to vote their full ballot because we don’t yet know the scope of any redistricting effort,” Lawson said. “For example, look at the 11th Congressional District in western North Carolina. It might not be affected by redistricting, and we don’t want people self-censoring and deciding not to vote.”

Rowan County will almost surely be affected by any redistricting. The 12th Congressional District snakes through the center of Rowan County, bobbing and weaving across I-85. The district contains East Spencer, Spencer and most of Salisbury. It misses Granite Quarry and snakes around China Grove, Landis and Kannapolis. Its long, slender shape stretches from Winston-Salem and Greensboro to Charlotte.

The redistricting could occur in two weeks — by Feb. 19 — or after the U.S. Supreme Court considers an appeal.

Attorneys for the state on Monday asked the U.S. Middle District Court to hold off on enforcement of its ruling so North Carolina can appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court. In Monday’s filing, attorneys for the state said a rapid redistricting could “cause significant voter confusion and irreparable harm to the citizens of North Carolina and the election process that is already under way.”

In case the court upholds its Feb. 19 deadline, House Speaker Tim Moore has tentatively scheduled a special legislative session for Feb. 15 to 17.

Meanwhile, dozens of Rowan County absentee ballots — an estimated 70 to 80 — have been mailed, according to the local board of elections. Rowan Elections Director Nancy Evans said three absentee ballots have been completed and returned. Thousands of ballots have been distributed across the state.

In his email, Lawson said all questions about whether votes will count should be directed to the State Board of Elections.

“We understand many voters may ask whether their votes in congressional primaries will count,” he said in the email. “Please do not attempt to answer that, as the state’s attorneys are still reviewing this matter.”

Evans recalled a previous race where courts required redistricting before a primary election. It was also in the 12th Congressional District, but didn’t pose the potential for already-cast absentee ballots to be discarded.

“We had not started sending ballots out, so the actual candidates and everything weren’t affected,” she said. “This time is different.”

Two of Rowan’s three U.S. House districts feature a primary. Both districts with primary competition will likely see a shift in district lines because of the court ruling.

In the 5th District Republican primary, incumbent Rep. Virginia Foxx faces Kernersville resident Pattie Curran. The 12th Congressional District includes both a Republican and Democratic primary. On the Republican side, Matthews resident and pastor Leon Threatt will face Charlotte resident Ryan Duffie, who works in finance. On the Democratic side, incumbent Rep. Alma Adams will face Winston-Salem resident Gardenia Henley, an Air Force veteran who also worked for the federal government, and Juan Antonio Marin Jr., a Greensboro resident and engineer.

When maps are redrawn, it could move some of the candidates out of the 12th District. It wouldn’t, however, affect the person’s candidacy. For example, Henley’s listed residential address is right on the border of the 12th District in Winston-Salem. In 2014, she ran for the 5th Congressional District seat. If she or any other candidate were drawn out of the 12th district, election laws would still allow her or him to run for the same spot.

Before Adams won the seat in 2014, the 12th Congressional District was represented by Mel Watt. While he served in the seat, the 12th Congressional District was the subject of various litigation. In 1997, the General Assembly redrew its boundaries.

The district’s current boundaries stem from a 2011 redistricting led by N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, and N.C. Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett. The court’s ruling states race was a significant factor in determining the district’s boundaries. Therefore, it’s unconstitutional, according to the court.

“Defendants contend that (Congressional District) 12 is a purely political district and that race was not a factor even considered in redistricting,” The court’s ruling states. “Nevertheless, direct evidence indicating racial predominance combined with the traditional redistricting factors’ complete inability to explain the composition of the new district rebut this contention and leads the Court to conclude that race did indeed predominate in (Congressional District) 12.”

In a prepared statement issued Monday, Rucho and Lewis said the federal court likely wasn’t aware of the ongoing election when the three-judge panel made its ruling.

“We trust the federal trial court was not aware an election was already under way and surely did not intend to throw our state into chaos by nullifying ballots that have already been sent out and votes that have already been cast,” the pair said in the joint statement. “We hope the court will realize the serious and far-reaching ramifications of its unprecedented, eleventh-hour action and immediately issue a stay.”

Rep. Adams in a prepared statement said she was focused on doing her job as a congress rather than the redistricting.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.