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State officials have asked the three-judge panel that late last week tossed Congressional Districts 1 and 12  as racial gerrymanders to stay their order requiring a new congressional redistricting plan by February 19, arguing that disrupting the primary elections already underway will lead to “significant voter confusion and irreparable harm to the citizens of North Carolina.”

They have asked the judges for a ruling today so that they can seek emergency relief from the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary and have also filed a notice of appeal of last week’s decision to the high court.

In an affidavit filed in support of the request, Board of Elections Executive Director Kim Strach noted that 46 congressional candidates are competing in the 2016 elections, including two in District 1 and five in District 12.

County election officials began issuing mail-in absentee ballots on January 25. According to state data those officials mailed 8,621 ballots to voters, 903 of whom are located outside the United States, and hundreds of those ballots have been voted and returned.

According to Strach, should the General Assembly redraw districts by the Feb. 19 deadline, election officials would need to late May to make necessary adjustments for the primary elections — well beyond the March 15 scheduled date.

Bifurcating the primary elections with congressional races held sometime in late May would add to early voting costs as well, Strach added.

In its final judgment on Friday, the judges also forbade state officials from conducting any elections for the U.S. Representative until a new plan is in place.

Since then though election officials have been encouraging absentee voters to keep voting and to cast the full ballot, including in House of Representative races — contending that the court’s order with respect to “conducting elections” was unclear.

“There are a lot of contingencies that we don’t want voters to have to filter through – in a district for example  that wouldn’t be affected by a redistricting effort,”  Board of Elections General Counsel Josh Lawson said.

“Our message was ‘vote it if it’s on your ballot,’ but the legal significance of that, whether or not we certify that, is still something that’s controlled by the courts,” he added.

“We’re trying to make sure that not everyone thinks that this jeopardizes participation, because it may not.”

Read the state’s papers here.

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Commentary

[Bill Wilson, the Deputy Director of the North Carolina Justice Center and a veteran observer of state politics, recently examined at the candidate filings for the 2016 elections. As explained in the essay below, his findings once again document the need for electoral reform.]

BillWilsonAsk Santa for a better democracy
By Bill Wilson

With the holiday season in full swing, not a lot of North Carolinians are paying much attention to the recently concluded candidate filings for the North Carolina General Assembly. Sadly, they probably have other good reasons not to be too excited. A look at the results indicates that many candidates got an early holiday gift this year by being elected to the legislature a full 11 months prior to Election Day and without actually having to run.

Of the 50 districts in the state Senate, 13 people have been elected even before the early March primary – that’s 26 per cent of the entire Senate. After the primary, only 35 of the Senate’s districts will have an election in November.

Voters for seats in the state House suffer a similar fate. Of the 120 seats in the House, voters in 40 districts (one-third of all seats) will have no choice as to who will represent them in 2017, again even before the March primary. After the primary, candidates in 46 of the 120 seats will already be decided.

Overall, of the 170 seats in the NC legislature, 53, or almost a third, will be decided before any election takes place. After the March primary election, 61 seats will be determined before the November general election, and frankly, many if not most of these races are not really competitive.

While this is a sad statement for our democracy in North Carolina, voters shouldn’t be surprised since incumbency continues to offer a clear advantage — particularly with respect to fundraising and the gerrymandered districts that will provide voters with only a few competitive November contests.

Another sad fact is that it appears that less than 25% of all candidates who filed will be women.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Four different  bills were introduced last year in both the state House and state Senate (some with bipartisan support) that would change the way the districts are drawn – taking power away from the legislators who have incentives for self-preservation and party control and giving it to an independent redistricting commission that would develop districts that the legislature could vote up or down, but could not change.

Some proposals would put this process into play after the 2020 census; another would put it off until 2030. One, House Bill 92, even has 63 House sponsors – enough to pass the bill on the House floor. Unfortunately, for legislative leaders, this is apparently too soon for their liking since none of these bills were considered in the 2015 long session.

A recent news report claimed that the redistricting process was “in for a big rewrite in 2020,” but unless the state moves toward drawing districts without regard to incumbency and party control, real change is unlikely. Instead, we’ll continue to see abysmal candidate filing statistics like the ones above — with those candidates who do file often beholden to far right and far left constituencies and that will continue the political polarization that exists in our General Assembly.

This year, let’s ask Santa for legislative districts in which  voters have real choices in who they want to represent them, and where the quality of candidates and their positions on issues will decide elections instead of districts designed to elect one particular party or the other.

Better yet – let’s ask the General Assembly to pass this legislation!

Happy holidays!

Commentary

GerrymanderingIn case you missed it, Raleigh’s News & Observer is featuring an essay by one of the nation’s founding fathers today that highlights the sorry state of politics in 21st Century North Carolina.

As Elbridge Gerry — the man for whom gerrymandering was named — informs us:

“A short while ago, I read that most legislative districts in North Carolina were not even competitive, with nearly half of your General Assembly races having just one candidate on the ballot last year – effectively deciding the election before a single vote was cast. Sadly, the prime culprit depriving you of a choice at the ballot box is gerrymandering.

As someone who risked his life to establish American democracy, I must say that this is appalling. We fought our revolution for the right to decide our own fate, for the right to vote for our leaders. Now other Americans, from both political parties, are trying to take it all away.

I was really depressed when I realized this and was feeling more than a bit guilty for my role in pioneering such tactics, but lately I have seen some signs that gerrymandering may be waning.

Twenty-one states have taken the power of redistricting out of the hands of politicians and given it to independent commissions…

And about two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court – one of our better creations when we wrote the Constitution – upheld the right of states to create these independent redistricting commissions. Justice Ginsberg got it right when she said ‘the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government.’

Also good news is that the U.S. Supreme Court told Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina that they needed to take another look at the way they did redistricting in the last round. They ordered Alabama to redo its map drawing and another court told Virginia to redo theirs. North Carolina is still up in the air.”

The bottom line: If even the man for whom gerrymandering was named can endorse a better path forward, surely Senator Phil Berger — the man responsible for the current mess in North Carolina — can do so. Come on Phil, don’t wait 203 years to admit your error.

News

Voter IDA new analysis of voter registration data shows that under the McCrory administration, North Carolina may be systematically failing to provide state residents with the opportunity to register to vote when they apply for public assistance — such as food stamps or welfare — in violation of the National Voter Registration Act.

Commonly called the “Motor Voter Law,” the Act requires public assistance agencies and motor vehicle offices to provide voter registration services whenever someone applies for benefits, renews or recertifies benefits, or changes an address with the agency, unless the person declines these services in writing.

Affected programs include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (“TANF”), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (“WIC”), the Medicaid program, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (“CHIP”).

According to Democracy NC, voter registration applications initiated at public assistance agencies have dropped dramatically since McCrory took office. They fell from an annual average of 38,400 between 2007 and 2012 to an average of only 16,000 in the past two years, a decline of more than 50 percent.

The organization also reports that last fall it and other voting-rights groups checked out 19 public assistance agencies across the state  and found after interviews that up to 75 percent of the clients at the agencies did not see a registration question on agency forms and were not asked whether they would like to register to vote, as required by federal law.

Also, according to this piece in the The Daily Kos:

From 1995 through 2012, the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBOE) published on its web site annual summaries (in the form of Excel spreadsheets) of its NVRA compliance data. But, beginning in 2013 (when McCrory took office), that practice appears to have come to a halt, and no annual summaries are available there for McCrory’s term (2013-2014).

Here’s a graph from that article showing the apparent decline:

(Source: DocDawg for Daily Kos)

(Source: DocDawg for Daily Kos)

Democracy NC, Action NC, and the A. Philip Randolph Institute sent a notice letter today to the State Board of Elections  and the Department of Health and Human Services, advising both of their findings and giving the state 90 days to comply with the law or face yet another voting rights lawsuit.

North Carolina is already in the throes voting rights battles in the courts. Three federal lawsuits — including one brought by the Justice Department — and another action in state court, all concerning the state’s so called “Monster Voting Law,” are now pending.

The state is also fighting a challenge to its 2011 voter redistricting plan, a case that is now back in state Supreme Court after being remanded by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Commentary

Editorial pages and good government advocates are weighing in this morning in praise of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to send North Carolina’s gerrymandered legislative maps back to the state Supreme Court for further review. This morning’s Fayetteville Observer calls the decision a “setback” for gerrymandering and concludes this way:

“We don’t know how this will be settled, but it reminds us that the creation of a nonpartisan redistricting commission is the real solution that we need.”

Meanwhile, Raleigh’s News & Observer terms the ruling a “voter victory.” It also notes that:

“Redrawing legislative and congressional districts is a task that ruling parties take on after a census. It’s true, as Republicans have claimed, that Democrats drew districts to their advantage when they were in power, but they did not go to the extremes the GOP did.

Think of how much time and trouble and money the state could save if it established a bipartisan commission to draw districts every 10 years. But don’t expect that to happen while Republicans continue to enjoy being in power after 100 years out of it.”

And for more details on how a nonpartisan solution is within easy reach of the General Assembly, turn over to the right side of the N&O editorial section and read this op-ed by Common Cause board member and retired N.C. State professor Larry King in which he explains how GOP lawmakers like Representatives David Lewis and Bert Jones have done one of the all-time flip flops on the issue. As King explains:

“Republican Party leaders need to let the democratic process play out. This is legislation they have long championed. North Carolina Republicans remember all too well how frustrating it was when their voices weren’t heard because of gerrymandered districts. Redistricting reform ensures this never happens again. It’s time to end gerrymandering once and for all in North Carolina, and it starts with letting H92 be heard in committee.

The residents of North Carolina deserve no less.”