In divided votes, NC legislature OK’s another primary delay

Published 5:30 pm Wednesday, January 19, 2022

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A divided General Assembly agreed Wednesday to delay North Carolina’s already postponed primaries by another three weeks, with Republicans citing uncertainty surrounding their new redistricting maps for the date change.

But with the legislation approved on party lines by the House and Senate, and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper telling lawmakers they should leave delay decisions to the state Supreme Court, the odds that the delay becomes law appear long. GOP majorities in both chambers are not veto-proof.

The bill now heading to Cooper’s desk would set the primary date for party nominations for U.S. Senate and House, the legislature and scores of judicial and local positions for June 7. Primary runoffs would be held either July 26 or Aug. 16, with the latter date used statewide should a second-place primary finisher for any federal post ask for a runoff.

Cooper has not stated directly whether he would veto the bill, but said early Wednesday that “I don’t think they should be moving the primary day.”

“We need to let the courts decide this and figure it out,” the Democratic governor told Spectrum News 1 in an interview. “The legislature does not need to butt in to the voting process.”

The primary date, as set in current law, would have been March 8, but the Supreme Court postponed the primary last month to May 17 so redistricting litigation could work its way through the legal system.

A panel of three trial judges last week refused to throw out the congressional and legislative maps drawn by GOP General Assembly leaders in November. That decision was appealed to the Supreme Court, where the justices set for oral arguments for Feb. 2.

Republicans proposing the change just two days ago said a further primary delay is needed to reduce confusion with a tight schedule as the state awaits the court’s decision on the maps.

Feb. 18 is the date in which the State Board of Elections says maps need to be finalized to allow for an orderly May 17 primary. And should the justices strike down districts as illegal partisan or racial gerrymanders, the law gives the legislature no less than two weeks “to remedy any defects” before the court could impose its own substitute plan.

“Confusion would occur if the Supreme Court rules on Feb. 17, and what’s the public going to do, what are candidates going to do?” asked Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican shepherding the bill. “So this just … takes that issue off the table and sets a reasonable schedule out in the future.”

Legislative Democrats, who strongly oppose the redistricting plans, say it’s best for the Supreme Court to decide on any schedule change — like it already did once — even if they uphold the maps. The candidate filing deadline also would be delayed to April 1.

“If judges set a timeline, judges don’t react real well when you start playing with the timeline,” Rep. Robert Reives of Chatham County, the House minority leader, said during floor debate. “Let’s see what the courts do and once the courts do what they do, then react at that point.”

If Wednesday’s bill does not become law, a problem remains with elections for municipalities that are still governed by a 2021 law to hold runoff or general elections in late April. Wednesday’s measure would delay those elections to the broader statewide runoff date.

While Republicans say they remain confident in the legality of their maps, registered Democrats hold a 4-3 seat advantage on the Supreme Court. That heartens legislative Democrats, however, who sound confident district lines will be struck down and redrawn. Reives said he’s confident the court would give lawmakers enough time to redo districts.

Litigation challenging the maps contend Republican legislators violated the state constitution by drawing lines that likely will result in the GOP winning 10 of the state’s 14 U.S. House seats and preserving state House and Senate majorities in almost any political environment. In contrast, statewide elections are usually closely divided.

The three-judge panel wrote Jan. 11 that while there was clear evidence of “intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting,” it was not the place of the judiciary to alter the political fairness of maps that the constitution says is left to the legislature to draw.

Nearly 30 House members absent for Wednesday’s session voted instead by proxy, as was allowed for months during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate only allowed in-person voting.