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Gov. Cooper vetoes GOP bill pushing primary to June

2016 FILE PHOTO: North Carolina State University students vote in a primary in Raleigh.
Sara D. Davis/Getty Images
via NPR
2016 FILE PHOTO -- North Carolina State University students vote in a primary in Raleigh.

Gov. Roy Cooper refused on Friday to delay North Carolina's primaries by another three weeks to June, vetoing a measure that Republican legislators said would allow them more time to redraw their redistricting plans if the state Supreme Court strikes down boundaries.

The Democratic governor had said last week before the General Assembly approved the legislation that it was a bad idea for lawmakers to interfere as the state's highest court considers litigation challenging congressional and legislative boundaries.

The justices last month already postponed primary elections originally set for March 8 until May 17 to allow time for them to hear the lawsuits claiming that illegal partisan gerrymandering and the dilution of Black voting power favor Republicans. The state Supreme Court plans to hear oral arguments in the case on Wednesday.

Cooper, who with Attorney General Josh Stein filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the justices to strike down the new maps, wrote in his veto message that Republicans were seeking to control the election timeline.

"The constitutionality of congressional and legislative districts is now in the hands of the North Carolina Supreme Court and the Court should have the opportunity to decide how much time is needed to ensure that our elections are constitutional," Cooper said in a news release.

The bill was approved on party lines by Republicans, who said a further primary delay to June 7 was needed to reduce confusion as the state awaits the court’s decision. With the GOP lacking veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, the chances of an override are slim.

North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, accused Cooper of interfering with a reasonable delay that was meant to ensure the map redrawing is thorough and constitutional.

“Unfortunately, Governor Cooper’s veto undermines that process in the name of politics,” Moore said.

The State Board of Elections has said it needs final maps by Feb. 18 in order to keep the May primary on schedule. Republicans note a state law that requires the General Assembly be given at least two weeks to redraw the maps if they are struck down, before judges could step in and draw their own. Registered Democrats hold a 4-3 majority on the Supreme Court.

Cooper and Stein said in their court brief that the justices should decide to delay the primary again if it means ensuring “future elections are held under constitutional maps.” But one group of plaintiffs, led by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, said justices have the authority to shorten or eliminate the two-week period. Lawyers for others who sued said the justices should place the remapping in the hands of a third-party expert.

The vetoed bill would have extended the primary date for the U.S. Senate and House, the legislature and scores of judicial and local positions. 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.

The redistricting litigation alleges 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.

A panel of three trial judges already refused to strike down the districts earlier this month. While there was clear evidence of “intentional, pro-Republican partisan redistricting,” the judges wrote, it wasn't the role of the judiciary to step in and interfere with a process that was inherently political and left to the General Assembly.

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