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Colin Campbell: NC elections in limbo over maps

Writer

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

RALEIGH — Trying to make sense of all the redistricting action in North Carolina this month? Good luck with that.

Lawsuits and legislative actions have resulted in a scenario where most of the 2018 election contests are uncertain. You can run for office, but you won’t know for sure who your voters are.

Congressional races? The U.S. Supreme Court might throw out the current districts as partisan gerrymanders. Legislative races? We’re waiting on SCOTUS for that too — to settle the dispute over whether we’ll be using the legislature’s districts or ones drawn by the court-appointed “special master.”

That leaves the judicial races. Legislators are taking their time in crafting new districts for District Court and Superior Court. Every month, a legislative committee rolls out new proposed maps for how we might elect local judges.

Republicans explain that their maps are an improvement over the current judicial districts, where the district populations vary wildly and clutter up ballots in urban counties with a ton of judicial races. Democrats argue that the changes are designed to benefit Republicans while drawing incumbent judges — many African-American — out of their current districts.

Republicans keep tweaking the proposed new districts and it’s unclear when a proposal will make it to the House and Senate floor for a vote. Meanwhile, the same committee continues to talk about dropping judicial elections altogether and creating an appointment system for judges.

That idea seems to be losing steam. It was discussed for all of five minutes at the last meeting, and my guess is that appointing judges would be a hard sell. Such a sweeping change would require voters to approve a constitutional amendment, and polling shows voters are reluctant to give up their rights to vote for stuff.

So that leaves legislators trying to redraw judicial districts while the fate of their other redistricting maps remains uncertain. Can lawmakers draw funky-shaped districts to help their political party win more seats? The Supreme Court will decide. To what extent should race factor in, and can a court mandate its own maps? The Supreme Court will decide.

All this uncertainty about what’s legal probably explains why legislators are extremely tight-lipped about what criteria they’re using to craft the new judicial maps. Rep. Justin Burr, R-Stanly and the chief architect of the proposal, will say only that he drew the maps to give each district a similar population.

When lawmakers redrew congressional maps in 2016, they were honest about their motivations: Draw districts that would elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats. The same principle seems to apply to the judicial proposal, but legislators won’t say it out loud: They need plausible deniability if the Supreme Court decides that’s not OK.

Take Buncombe County, for example. Now that District Court and Superior Court ballots have party labels, the current countywide election system in this left-leaning county will likely put Democrats on the bench. The latest proposed maps split Buncombe into three districts, two of which have strongly favored Democrats in past elections and one of which favors Republicans. Each of the left-leaning districts would get to pick two District Court judges, while the lucky folks in the GOP district would pick three.

That looks like gerrymandering. But Republicans could argue that because nearly 40 percent of Buncombe voters backed Donald Trump in 2016, a system that ensures 43 percent of the county’s judges are Republicans is perfectly reasonable.

The legal uncertainty also could explain why the legislature hasn’t released data showing how incumbent judges would be impacted in the new districts. Without official numbers available, a reporter for the liberal N.C. Policy Watch used public records to figure it out. Her reporting found that 64 incumbent District Court judges, or 24 percent of incumbents, would be double-bunked with other judges in the latest maps. Of those, 32 percent are African-American and 73 percent are registered Democrats.

If the redistricting plan passes, a lawsuit from left-leaning groups is almost guaranteed. And the outcome of that lawsuit will depend on what the U.S. Supreme Court decides in the other cases in the coming months.

Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

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