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New NC districts backed by judges; candidate filing resuming

In this photo taken Wednesday, July 26, 2017 a member of the gallery tries to display her sign while lawmakers convene during a joint select committee meeting on redistricting in Raleigh, N.C. North Carolina's nearly continuous legal battles this decade over how maps for state district boundaries are drawn don't end with a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision refusing to try to recalibrate boundaries to repair aggrieved political imbalances.
Gerry Broome
In this photo taken Wednesday, July 26, 2017, a member of the gallery tries to display her sign while lawmakers convene during a joint select committee meeting on redistricting in Raleigh, N.C.

Story updated at 6:54 p.m.

With district boundaries decided for now, North Carolina candidates were welcomed into election offices on Thursday to file for this year's races. Others weighed their futures as another round of redistricting retooled the geographic and partisan makeup of seat boundaries.

The State Board of Elections and county election offices accepted candidate documents and fees again after filing was suspended for 2 1/2 months.

The resumption was affirmed only after the state Supreme Court on Wednesday night refused the appeals of those seeking to delay the use of congressional districts and state Senate districts that a panel of trial judges had endorsed earlier in the day. A state House map also approved by the three judges wasn't appealed and is now in use.

The filing restart also applied to candidates who don't run in districts. That includes Cheri Beasley, the Democratic front-runner for U.S. Senate who came to the State Fairgrounds in Raleigh with family and campaign staff to file her paperwork with the State Board of Elections.

The former chief justice of the state Supreme Court tried to focus on the future as she deflected questions about recent rulings by many of her Democratic former court colleagues. Three weeks ago, the justices struck down redistricting maps enacted by the GOP-controlled General Assembly in November by declaring them unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders favoring Republicans.

“We have heard the rulings of the courts, the decisions have been made, and we’re moving on,” Beasley told reporters. “It’s time to make sure that we’re traveling across the state, meeting North Carolinians, talking to them about the kinds of issues that they care deeply about.”

Beasley had not formally filed during the three days in December that filing was permitted for the then-March 8 primary. The Supreme Court suspended that process so that redistricting litigation could go to trial. The justices also delayed the primary until May 17, which is still scheduled.

Ultimately, the General Assembly approved replacement maps last week. The trial judges, with the recommendation of special experts they hired, upheld the legislative districts but retooled the congressional map extensively before adopting it for this year's elections.

The new U.S. House boundaries, likely in effect for the 2022 elections only, put Republicans in good shape to win seven of the 14 seats and Democrats six, according to political analysts. An open 13th District seat stretching from southern Wake County south into three fast-growing exurban counties is a likely toss-up.

Democrats currently hold five of the state's 13 U.S. House seats, so the map will be a likely improvement for their party. North Carolina gets a 14th seat starting in 2023 thanks to population growth.

Republican legislators had drawn a congressional map that created four competitive districts — yet which also could have given the GOP a 10-4 seat advantage in the right circumstances. In a legal filing late Wednesday, Republicans had suggested that the judges' plan were ripe for a challenge in federal courts. Republican legislators were silent early Thursday about what, if anything, they plan to do next.

For now, members of Congress and potential candidates made pronouncements about electoral intentions.

Five-term GOP Rep. Richard Hudson of Concord announced he would file to run in a reconfigured 9th District that leans Republican, rather than run in a new 12th District near his current home considered heavily Democratic. Hudson has previously represented most of the counties in the new 9th, including areas around Fort Bragg.

GOP Rep. Dan Bishop of Charlotte, who represents the current 9th District, said late Thursday that he would run in the new 8th District, which includes some south-central counties he currently represents.

In a tweet, Bishop said he wants “to keep fighting for freedom for those I have served before and new friends I have yet to meet.”

A decision also should be forthcoming from first-term Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn of Henderson County, who filed for reelection in December for a proposed district that stretched from parts of Charlotte west to the foothills. But that district essentially no longer exists, and the 11th District he currently represents is more comfortably Republican than its previous iteration was.

Cawthorn, like other candidates already formally running, has until next Tuesday to withdraw as a candidate for a specific district. He could then file for another district seat by midday March 4, when the filing period closes. Congressional candidates don’t have to live in the district for which they are running.

Candidate filing in North Carolina will resume Thursday as scheduled, as the state Supreme Court refused late Wednesday to delay the use of redistricting maps endorsed by trial judges earlier in the day.

The justices declined any delay despite a flurry of appeals from Republican legislative leaders opposed to the new lines for U.S. House seats, and from lawyers for voters and advocacy groups unhappy with new state Senate districts that the trial judges upheld.

The decision also means primary elections will remain May 17. The Supreme Court had already suspended candidate filing in December and pushed back the March primary so that litigation challenging maps the Republican-controlled General Assembly approved in November could go to trial.

A majority of justices -- all registered Democrats -- struck down those lines earlier this month, saying they were partisan gerrymanders that violated the state constitution by failing to treat voters who back Democrats fairly.

Within two weeks, the General Assembly approved new congressional and legislative districts they say complied with the Supreme Court’s demands for partisan fairness and gave Democrats a pathway to win majorities.

On Wednesday, a panel of trial judges upheld the replacement state House and Senate boundaries but adopted an interim congressional plan that likely would be used for the 2022 elections only.

The judges agreed with the recommendation of special experts they hired who said the U.S. House map approved by the General Assembly failed to meet the statistical thresholds mentioned by the Supreme Court to give substantially similar voting power to Democrats and Republicans in an otherwise closely divided state.

“The court concludes that the remedial congressional plan does not satisfy the Supreme Court’s standards,” the order from Superior Court Judges Graham Shirley, Nathaniel Poovey and Dawn Layton read.

Republicans currently hold eight of the state's 13 U.S. House seats, with North Carolina to gain a 14th seat this decade due to population growth.

The new court-drawn congressional plan makes changes that likely would help Democrats in winning a sixth seat, according to Asher Hildebrand, a Duke University politics professor and former congressional aide.

Republicans would be in good shape to win seven seats. And an open seat stretching from parts of Raleigh south into three fast-growing suburban counties likely would be very competitive, Hildebrand wrote in a social media message. These changes would put obstacles in front of national Republicans seeking to win the seat totals needed to win a majority in the chamber next fall.

Wednesday’s congressional map “is a victory for the people of North Carolina,” said Kelly Ward Burton with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, whose affiliate helped support a lawsuit filed by several voters. “They are going to be able to vote with a congressional map that reflects the diversity and geographic composition of North Carolina.”

The congressional map the judges set aside Wednesday appeared to strongly favor a Republican candidate in six districts, while four strongly favored a Democrat. The other four were considered highly competitive.

In a report attached to the ruling, special masters Bob Orr, Bob Edmunds and Tom Ross wrote the interim plan “achieves the partisan fairness and ‘substantially equal voting power’ required by the Supreme Court” — while meeting other principles, including protecting the rights of Black voters. Orr and Edmunds are former state Supreme Court justices, while Ross is an ex-trial judge and former University of North Carolina system president.

GOP leaders said the remedial boundaries they voted on last week increased partisan fairness and met statistical thresholds the Supreme Court suggested could be used to ensure they were constitutionally compliant.

In their motion to delay enforcement of the panel's congressional map ruling, Republican legislators contended the judges failed to give proper deference to the legislature.

“North Carolina has not passed legislation or amended its constitution to allow for a commission of three retired judges, aided by out-of-state mathematicians, to create district plans for our ... 7.2 million plus voters,” GOP attorney Phil Strach wrote, referencing the special masters.

Strach's brief contended the panel's adopted plan violated the U.S. Constitution — opening a possible door to challenge the map in federal courts.

For the approved state House and state Senate maps, Republicans have a slight electoral seat advantage, according to analyses when the lines are overlapped with the results of 12 statewide elections from 2016 and 2020. But Democrats have a path to win majorities in a favorable political year.

The lawsuit plaintiffs — the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters among them — had offered alternate maps for the judges to consider. They told the judges the replacement maps passed last week did not go far enough in eliminating partisan bias. Their court filings late Wednesday focused on changing the state Senate map, which they argue still contains pro-Republican gerrymandering.

The state Supreme Court denied over a dozen motions or petitions late Wednesday without giving reasons why. There was also no information provided about whether some justices disagreed with those decisions.

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