Although November remains months away, the 2022 elections–and the political districts that will define them–are top of mind for many of North Carolina’s political leaders and campaign pros; however, campaign plans leading up to the spring primary and general election met some speed bumps late last year that continue to affect the 2022 election field through the early months of the new year.

Catch Up Quick

North Carolina has seen nearly a dozen iterations of proposed and enacted district maps over the past two decades and, historically, redistricting has been a hot, recurring political issue in the state.

The most recent iteration of district maps–which were redrawn using the latest decennial census data in 2021–have proven no exception. North Carolina experienced significant population growth over the last decade, earning it a fourteenth Congressional seat and making the newly drawn maps that much more contentious: the districts drawn through the decennial redistricting could determine the political makeup of the state legislature and North Carolina’s United States House delegation for the next decade.

North Carolina’s latest redistricting procedures began in earnest in September 2021 with public hearings, following the August release of delayed 2020 census data. Lawmakers began drawing new state House, state Senate and Congressional maps in October and passed the plans in early November, a couple weeks ahead of the candidate filing period for the 2022 election, and plaintiffs in the current case filed lawsuits just several days later. Candidate filing opened in early December but, after some “whiplash,” was ultimately delayed while legal challenges to the current district maps played out in court. The North Carolina Supreme Court also ordered the state’s primary election date pushed back from March 8 to May 17 as a result of the pending litigation and anticipated appeals.

Harper v. Hall

The court case at the center of North Carolina’s latest redistricting saga was brought against state legislative leaders by a handful of plaintiffs seeking to overturn current district maps and alleging they are partisan gerrymanders. The arguments made in Harper v. Hall are not unlike those made in a 2019 lawsuit that ultimately resulted in North Carolina’s district maps being redrawn for the last election cycle.

Plaintiffs in the case filed lawsuits in mid-November, and a three-judge panel first heard the case in early January. The bipartisan panel issued a unanimous ruling on Jan. 11 that the existing maps, as currently drawn, could stand, and plaintiffs immediately announced plans to appeal the decision directly to the state Supreme Court, skipping over the N.C. Court of Appeals. As plaintiffs and defendants alike prepared their briefs and other materials ahead of the N.C. Supreme Court’s Jan. 31 filing deadline and Feb. 2 oral arguments hearing, state lawmakers passed a bill to delay the state’s primary date again. The bill, which cleared the legislature on Jan. 19, aimed to delay the primary election again from May 17 to June 7, but was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Cooper nine days later.

With Harper v. Hall on its way to the state Supreme Court, a number of justices were called on to recuse themselves from the case over perceived conflicts of interest. Ultimately none did, and the full bench heard oral arguments in the case on Feb. 2 with the promise of a quick decision. Just two days later on Feb. 4, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued an abbreviated version of its 4-3 decision, ultimately ruling the state’s current district maps unconstitutional. On Feb. 14, the state Supreme Court released its full ruling in the case–just days ahead of lawmakers’ court-ordered Feb. 18 deadline to redraw state House, state Senate and Congressional district maps.

As directed by the N.C. Supreme Court, state lawmakers produced revised maps by Feb. 18 and they passed with bipartisan support. Plaintiffs in Harper v. Hall also submitted a set of maps to judges, and all parties to the case had until Monday, Feb. 21, at 5 p.m. to file comments regarding all submitted maps.

What’s Next?

With new maps submitted by all parties to the case, the next step is for a panel of three Superior Court judges to approve new maps. The three-judge panel will be aided by three former North Carolina judges chosen to review the maps as well. These “special masters” appointed to the case include former University of North Carolina system president and superior court judge Tom Ross, and former state Supreme Court justices Bob Edmunds and Bob Orr.

The special masters and the three-judge panel will consider the newly submitted district maps and are expected to arrive at a decision by noon tomorrow. If any party to the case chooses to appeal the panel’s decision, the appeal must be made by 5 p.m. the same day. Otherwise, candidate filing for the 2022 elections is scheduled to resume this Thursday, Feb. 24 at 8 a.m.

Should candidate filing begin on Feb. 24 as tentatively planned, it will last through March 4. The 2022 primary election date remains May 17.

The Bigger Picture

While the 2021 maps were intended to last through 2031, when fresh census date will compel decennial redistricting once again, continued or future litigation could result in requisite district map redrawing between now and then. There remains a chance that the legislative defendants in Harper v. Hall could appeal the state Supreme Court’s decision to the Supreme Court of the United States, which recently ruled in an Alabama redistricting case to uphold state lawmakers’ congressional maps. As time goes on, the shifting political makeup of the legislature, governor’s mansion and courts will likely shape future litigation decisions.

As everyday voters and seasoned political pros alike await the outcome of North Carolina’s most recent redistricting case, stay tuned for updates on the status of district maps in North Carolina, 2022 election updates and more, here.