Supreme Court: Redraw North Carolina Congressional Districts

Congressional districts in North Carolina will have to be redrawn for this year’s elections—and the date of the primary elections will be moved from March 15 to June 7—after a Supreme Court decision issued late Friday and other state legislative action.

In a one-line order issued near 10 p.m. Friday, the justices denied a request from North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and state election officials, who asked the justices to allow them to use the current congressional districts for the coming elections. The officials want to appeal a lower court ruling that found two districts were unconstitutional gerrymanders.

The justices denied that request without comment. The brief order leaves it unknown whether the absence of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who was lying in repose at the Supreme Court Friday, affected the outcome of the case. A 4-4 tie vote would simply leave in place the lower court’s ruling, but the Supreme Court order does not say whether that happened.

A three-judge panel had directed the state to draw new congressional districts by Friday. The panel found race predominated in the drawing of the state’s 1st and 12th congressional districts held, respectively, by Democrats G.K. Butterfield and Alma Adams, both African-Americans.

The Supreme Court decision clears the way for other changes. The North Carolina legislature had ratified a bill that would eliminate runoff elections, and instead have the results determined by a plurality —  the candidate who receives more than any other but not a majority of the votes.

All of the changes could affect House and Senate races, but particularly those with a large field of candidates. Congressional races effectively will be paused until new maps, ratified Friday by the North Carolina legislature, are approved by the three-judge panel.

The North Carolina legislature ratified a new congressional plan Friday to comply with the order, according to a letter filed Friday at the Supreme Court from a lawyer representing North Carolina in the appeal.

The new map maintains the Republican delegation’s current partisan advantage, but makes significant changes to incumbents’ districts. “Every member of Congress is kind of shell-shocked right now,” a GOP operative in the state said Thursday.

North Carolina Republicans are gearing up for a showdown between 13th District Rep. George Holding and 2nd District Rep. Renee Ellmers, and looking at how the changes affect other races.

A second bill passed by the legislature moves the date of the congressional primary election from March 15, 2016, to June 7, 2016, eliminates the need for a “second primary,” and addresses other contingencies surrounding adoption of a new congressional districting plan, according to a letter filed Friday at the Supreme Court from the plaintiffs who challenged the original congressional districts.

The change of date means primaries for House races will fall on a different day than all of the state’s other primaries, including its presidential nominating contest. The new primary date will open up a new filing period.

North Carolina officials told the court that the order could cause “massive electoral chaos” because the election process started months ago.

Thousands of absentee ballots have been distributed to voters who are filling them out and returning them. Hundreds of those ballots have already been voted and returned. "The primary election day for hundreds of offices and thousands of candidates is less than 40 days away and, if the judgment is not stayed, it may have to be disrupted or delayed," the state's application says.

“Early voting for the primary starts in less than 30 days," it says. "Candidates for Congress have relied on the existing districts for two election cycles (2012 and 2014) and filed for the current seats over two months ago.”

Simone Pathe contributed to this story.