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NC judges deny requests to block elections under new maps

North Carolina's 2022 elections under new legislative and congressional maps can begin as scheduled next week after state judges on Friday rejected demands from lawsuit filers who claim the lines have to be blocked because they so egregiously favor Republicans.

The refusal of a three-judge panel to issue preliminary injunctions against the boundaries drawn and approved by GOP majorities in the General Assembly last month means candidates filing for the March 8 primary should start at noon Monday.

One of the lawsuits, filed by the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, mathematicians and voters, challenges both the legislative and congressional maps. The other, filed by voters supported by a group affiliated with the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, focuses solely on the state’s U.S. House map. The judges said there was a reasonable doubt about whether the lines violated the state constitution.

The plaintiffs can ask the Court of Appeals or state Supreme Court to review the decision — something that at least one group of plaintiffs said late Friday it’s already considering. The decisions don’t throw out fully the lawsuits that formed the basis for these requests heard in Wake County court.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuits call the lines “extreme partisan” gerrymanders that put Republicans in the driver’s seat to retain their state Houseand Senate majorities and win 10 of the state’s 14 U.S. House seats, even as North Carolina is considered closely divided in statewide elections. Republicans currently hold eight of 13 seats — North Carolina is getting an additional seat due to population growth.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued in part that the latest batch of lines, drawn using 2020 census figures, largely follows the playbook GOP lawmakers used when they redrew and approved congressional districts in 2016 and legislative maps in 2017.

In 2019, a different three-judge panel blocked these maps, pointing to evidence that the GOP used extreme political manipulation to ensure it could hold majorities in almost any political environment. The same holds true today, according to Elisabeth Theodore, a Washington-based attorney also involved in the 2019 litigation.

At Friday's hearing before the panel, Zach Schauf, an attorney representing plaintiffs in the League of Conservation Voters lawsuit, remarked that, “When you take the entire state and you systematically structure the maps so that one party is going to remain in control ... then that is the hallmark of a partisan gerrymander that is inconsistent with the North Carolina constitution.”

Superior Court Judge Graham Shirley, however, questioned whether a true standard had been set for “extreme partisan gerrymandering.” He pointed out a provision in a landmark redistricting ruling by the state Supreme Court in the early 2000s that the General Assembly “may consider partisan advantage” in drawing districts.

“Given the inherent political nature of redistricting, we cannot read that provision ... as narrowly as the plaintiff would have us do so,” Shirley said in denying the injunctions. “We have a reasonable doubt on these facts as to whether these acts of the General Assembly are unconstitutional.” Superior Court Judge Nathaniel Poovey and Dawn Layton joined in the decision.

Attorneys for the GOP legislative leaders who were sued said the boundaries are lawful, created through a mapmaking process in legislative committee rooms that was livestreamed for weeks. Lawmakers approved redistricting rules that prohibited the use of political data in map software programs.

“The legislature drew these maps in full view of the public in the most transparent process in history,” Senate redistricting committee co-chairman Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican, said after the hearing. “We’re of course pleased the court upheld that process and we can now all move forward.”

Lawyer Phil Strach, one of the outside attorneys for Republicans, blasted mathematicians working with the plaintiffs who contend that their calculations show the GOP lines can only be attributed to partisan manipulation, calling it “pie-in-the-sky, black box math" that failed to take into account that voters decide elections.

League of Conservation Voters Executive Director Carrie Clark pointed out that Shirley said the panel's ruling should not be constructed as condoning extreme partisan gerrymandering.

"The people of North Carolina deserve fair maps, and we will continue our fight to protect the voting rights of millions of North Carolina citizens,” Clark said in a news release.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Gary D. Robertson | Associated Press