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North Carolina Congressional Elections Thrown Into Chaos After Court Ruling


All right, and can you imagine running for election this fall and not knowing what areas you might represent? That is the challenge facing congressional candidates in North Carolina. A panel of federal judges ruled yesterday that the state's congressional districts are unfairly drawn to favor Republicans.

Joining us now to discuss North Carolina's redistricting dynamics is Rusty Jacobs. He's a political reporter at member station WUNC in Chapel Hill. Welcome.


CHANG: So tell us why the court said these maps are unconstitutional and need to be redrawn right away.

JACOBS: The court says these maps are unconstitutional because they violate key constitutional protections for North Carolina voters. They are so mangled and shaped in such a way to carve out political advantage for Republicans that they deprive North Carolina voters of First Amendment and equal protection rights. And they need to be corrected right away because, A, you've got Election Day right around the corner. Absentee ballots need to go out in a few weeks. Candidates are out there campaigning, raising money.

And they also note that North Carolina voters have gone six years and three election cycles with unconstitutional maps, right? These are 2016 maps originally discarded because of racial gerrymandering, and then this next set of maps was concluded to be extreme partisan gerrymandering - so North Carolina voters in the eyes of this court deprived of constitutional representation in Congress.

CHANG: So how are Republican lawmakers reacting to this decision?

JACOBS: They're slamming the decision. They say it's more political than legal. I spoke with Senator Ralph Hise. He's a member of the state Senate leadership, a key figure in the drawing of these maps. And he noted that the opinion's author is an Obama appointee.

RALPH HISE: Now none of those candidates have any idea what the districts look like, whether they'll be running, whether they will continue to be their party's nominee. All that's kind of just been thrown into chaos. And, you know, I think you look at it; chaos was the intent.

JACOBS: So he says chaos by design. Democrats, though, say you reap what you sow.

MAC MCCORKLE: The constitutional hardball becomes the constitutional screwball. What seems to be hard-headed Republicans just going forward and going for partisan advantage - I don't think they are seeing that the fruits of that is just more instability, more distrust, more imbalance.

JACOBS: So Mac McCorkle, longtime political consultant to Democrats, saying that Republicans are seeing the results of them trying so hard to preserve their power.

CHANG: Now, Republicans hold 10 out of the 13 House districts in North Carolina. So if these lines get redrawn, how would you see that affecting House races this November?

JACOBS: It's hard to say. Even before this decision from the court, national Democrats see some of the seats held by Republicans right now in North Carolina as in play. And they're putting a lot of influence and a lot of power behind the Democratic candidates. And those people will probably still be running. There is a big question, though, whether the state will have to hold new primaries or may even hold a general election after the new year without primaries.

CHANG: I mean, is it even possible to redraw a state's congressional districts this close to an election?

JACOBS: Nobody knows. The court allows for that possibility. It asks the parties to submit arguments by this Friday as to whether the legislature should redraw the maps. The court also says they cannot rule out enjoining - that is, preventing these elections from proceeding under the 2016 maps. And of course the issue could go to the U.S. Supreme Court. But that court is divided evenly right now, 4-4 - four justices leaning conservative and four justices leaning more liberal. So the only thing that's clear in this decision is a lot of uncertainty.

CHANG: How's that for clarity? Rusty Jacobs is a political reporter at member station WUNC in Chapel Hill. Thanks, Rusty.

JACOBS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SURYA'S "DERIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rusty Jacobs is a politics reporter for WUNC. Rusty previously worked at WUNC as a reporter and substitute host from 2001 until 2007 and now returns after a nine-year absence during which he went to law school at Carolina and then worked as an Assistant District Attorney in Wake County.