Bob Phillips, the executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, which was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits that last week caused the North Carolina Supreme Court to throw out the congressional and state legislative voting maps, is pretty clear about how he sees the power of that ruling.

Speaking during a Zoom meeting to discuss voting rights battles in various states, Phillips said North Carolina is the “epicenter for bad [electoral] maps.”

“This is a precedent-setting decision that says partisan gerrymandering is unlawful,” Phillips said. “We have had a deeply flawed process and deeply flawed maps.”

The Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote along party lines, tossed out the maps because they were created by extreme partisan gerrymandering – reinforcing what a lower court had established – and violated the state’s constitution.

Allison Riggs, an attorney for some of the liberal challengers seeking to have North Carolina’s new political maps ruled unconstitutional, questions a witness during a partisan gerrymandering trial, Monday, Jan. 3, 2022 at Campbell University School of Law in Raleigh, N.C. (Travis Long/The News & Observer via AP)

That 3-judge panel in Wake County Superior Court had said the maps were drawn with “extreme partisan gerrymandering” and that some maps were outliers – to cement or expand Republicans’ control in Raleigh and Washington – but they found no constitutional basis for rejecting them.

During oral arguments on Groundhog Day, justices had questioned and considered pleadings about whether there needed to be a firm definition to address how much gerrymandering would be too much.

The arguments for definitions – or a “bright line,” as Associate Justice Anita Earls called it during arguments – was at the epicenter of the pitches and catches before the court.

Phillips talked about how Black electors had been affected adversely by the new maps, which figured to marginalize some Black legislators, to give the GOP a 10-4 or 11-3 edge in Congress (the margin now is 8-5) and cement or expand its control of both houses of the General Assembly.

Allison Riggs, the attorney who argued the case for Common Cause – there were attorneys for the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters and a group of voters under the name “Harper,” too – called it a “historic victory” and added that “race is a proxy for partisanship, and partisanship puts a target on the back of voters of color.”

The court’s majority decision, signed by Associate Justice Robin Hudson, said the constitutional rights were affected when the legislature’s actions take away a voter’s right because of partisan affiliation.

“Achieving partisan advantage incommensurate with a political party’s level of statewide voter support is neither a compelling nor a legitimate governmental interest,” Hudson wrote.

Chief Justice Paul Newby, a Republican writing in dissent, said the decision “violates the separation of powers,” because the legislature has the legal right to draw maps.

The next batch of maps

The General Assembly is required to provide new maps to the Wake County court by next Friday, and the lower court has until Feb. 23 to approve those maps, the Supreme Court’s ruling stipulates. The Supreme Court also is requiring lawmakers to provide data to support their submitted maps, and justices asked each party in the suits – the three plaintiffs plus the General Assembly – to nominate candidates for the role of special master, which the justices would appoint to oversee that process. No names have emerged since Wednesday’s deadline.

House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) is frustrated about the court’s ruling, the absence of specific guidance from the court and the timetable. He also said he expects a vote in the House next week on new maps. House Majority Whip Jon Hardister (R-Guilford County) has not responded to an email seeking perspective on when, where and how the House might move. There has been little comment from the Senate about drawing new maps.

Beyond all of that, the current schedule is for candidates to resume filing for office – there was about 12 hours of filing in December – on Feb. 24 and continuing through March 5. The primary election is scheduled for May 17, but lawmakers have said repeatedly they think this process is too confined. They moved the primary to June 7, but Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed that measure, saying it was premature. The delay of the primary would not appear surprising.

GOP Senate debate?

Marjorie Eastman
Pat McCrory
Mark Walker

The John Locke Foundation, a conservative organization based in Raleigh, is planning to host a debate among the Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by retiring Richard Burr. One of those candidates, former congressman Mark Walker of Greensboro, tweeted last week that he, former Gov. Pat McCrory and newcomer Marjorie Eastman of Cary would participate in a virtual debate at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 26. The event was not listed on the calendar at johnlocke.org, but a social media post said the event would be at the Raleigh Marriott Crabtree Valley. Walker and McCrory in separate tweets jabbed another candidate, Rep. Ted Budd (R-Advance), about whether he would participate. Locke’s social post did not list Budd among participants.

The Cawthorn case

FILE- U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (WJZY FILE Photo)

The NC Election Commission said this week that it has the right to evaluate whether U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-Hendersonville) can seek re-election. A group of voters has challenged Cawthorn’s candidacy on grounds that his words and actions in relation to the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, violated the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits candidates who had sought to overthrow the government. Cawthorn has filed suit in federal court to block that review by saying he was invoking his First Amendment rights. Both the election officials and the voters filed responses to that lawsuit this week.

Tidbits

Carolyn Coleman (WGHP file)
  • Rep. Kathy Manning (D-Greensboro) this week praised late Guilford County Commissioner Carolyn Coleman on the floor of the House. Manning called Coleman “a remarkable trailblazer, activist, mother, and grandmother. As Guilford County’s first African American Chairwoman, Ms. Coleman made history serving our community. May her memory be a blessing.”
  • Anyone North Carolinian who is registered to vote or eligible to register can request an absentee ballot for the 2022 primary election through the North Carolina Absentee Ballot Portal on the State Board of Elections’ website. More than 362,000 made such requests in 2020, the Board of Elections said in a release.