RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Judges deciding when North Carolina must redraw its state legislative districts will hear Thursday from voting rights activists calling for special elections and Republican lawmakers urging a slower pace.
Democrats are hoping new electoral maps will help erode the GOP's veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly and give first-term Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper a stronger hand.
Districts must be redrawn after the federal court ruled 28 House and Senate districts are illegally race-based. That ruling was upheld this year by the U.S. Supreme Court, which returned the case to U.S. District Court to decide the next steps.
The plaintiffs are seeking a special election before next year's legislative session, while GOP lawmakers argue they should have until later this year to draw new maps for use in 2018's regularly scheduled elections. They will present their cases Thursday to a panel of three federal judges in Greensboro.
Lawyers for the state's Republican legislative leaders argued in a court filing earlier this month that it "would make no sense to artificially constrain this remedial process by ordering the General Assembly to proceed on an overly expedited schedule." Such a pace, they say, would reduce public transparency.
Further, they argue, the U.S. Supreme Court has strongly signaled that special elections aren't warranted. The federal court had previously told the state to hold special legislative elections in 2017, but the Supreme Court rejected that timetable. The ruling left the door open for the lower court to again order a special election, but time is dwindling.
In a recent legal filing, plaintiffs argued the maps should be redrawn this summer and special elections held in March 2018, several weeks before the General Assembly convenes for its yearly work session. They said the timetable is necessary now that the Supreme Court has agreed that current electoral maps are illegal.
"This Court should order them to enact remedial districts immediately and conduct special elections before the next session of the General Assembly in order to remove the risk that any acts the General Assembly takes, as usurpers, will be challenged," the lawyers wrote.
The legislative districts were initially drawn in 2011 when Republicans controlled the legislature, as they do now. Civil rights groups and voters challenged the districts, complaining that they packed too many black voters into some districts and made surrounding districts whiter and thus more likely to elect Republicans.
The maps have helped Republicans expand and retain majorities they initially won in 2010, when the GOP took control of both chambers simultaneously for the first time in 140 years. Republicans have used the advantage to cut taxes, restrict abortion and create taxpayer-funded scholarships for children to attend private schools.
Democrats need to capture three House seats or six Senate seats currently held by Republicans to eliminate the GOP's veto-proof majorities and enhance Cooper's power.
The state's Republican legislative leaders have told the court they intend to draw new maps by the end of November 2017. The legislative committee on redistricting held a short meeting Wednesday to discuss largely procedural matters.
One of the committee's leaders, Republican Rep. David Lewis, said lawmakers don't want to rush the process because they need the public's input.
"If you're going to get public input and allow for true deliberation of an issue like this, that it just takes time to do it," he told colleagues. "The amount of time that we have proposed is, of course, at the discretion of the court. The court may very well change that."
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