Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections, was standing behind the main registration table at the state fairgrounds Expo Center Monday morning. In just 30 minutes, candidates would gather there to start filing for the 2022 election cycle—but then her phone rang. It was a lawyer.
She put the call on speakerphone, and a small group of employees huddled together silently to listen.
A few minutes later, Brinson Bell got on the loudspeaker and told the 30 state employees and a gaggle of candidates waiting to file the news: an unnamed, three-member panel of judges on the North Carolina Court of Appeals had halted candidate filing for the congressional and state legislative races due to lawsuits challenging the process Republicans had used to craft heavily gerrymandered district maps intended to shape elections through 2030.
The maps were rated “F” in terms of partisan fairness by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. Lawsuits from the North Carolina NAACP and Common Cause claimed Republicans did not follow the correct procedure in drawing the maps by ignoring racial data.
What Monday’s injunction meant was out for interpretation. Courts could order all contests and races delayed, as has happened before, or let the U.S. Senate, judicial, and municipal races proceed on schedule but order a second primary for the races delayed by litigation.
Or it could just be another hiccup in the endless drama typical of North Carolina elections.
“Every way you can imagine it to resolve has happened in the past,” says Gerry Cohen, former special counsel to the General Assembly and Wake County Board of Elections member. “There’s all sorts of possibilities here and we just don’t know right now.”
Behind the scenes, several plays were in motion. By sundown, Governor Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein asked the Democrat-leaning state Supreme Court to take up the case, bypassing the 15-member court of appeals, which has a Republican majority.
“These cases involve legal and practical issues of the highest order, and that delay in this Court’s adjudication would cause substantial harm to the functioning of our State’s democracy,” the brief reads.
But what felt like minutes later, the full appeals court reversed the injunction, allowing filing to start Tuesday.
The maps could give Republicans as much as an 11–3 majority in Congress and potentially a supermajority in the state legislature. Democrats say the gerrymandered maps undermine democracy, but Republican leaders insist they are legally sound.
The lawsuits claim “the districts will dilute the voting power of Black North Carolinians” and “diminish the ability of voters of color to elect the candidates of their choice.” Republicans did not consult racial data when drawing the maps and hope this will help them skirt Democrats’ accusations of unconstitutional racial gerrymandering. The federal Supreme Court has so far declined to block partisan gerrymandering.
“Voters deserve delayed primaries, which includes a delay in candidate filing deadlines, to address the serious problems with the state’s voting maps, including what the N.C. NAACP, Common Cause NC, and individual plaintiffs have asked for: a review of the flawed procedures by which lawmakers drew the maps,” says Southern Coalition for Social Justice attorney Allison Riggs. “We look forward to continue making our case on appeal that all North Carolinians deserve a fair and constitutional process.”
For the state Board of Elections, losing a day of filing won’t have much impact. But the timeline leading up to the primary doesn’t leave much wiggle room, if any. Should maps need to be redrawn, state elections workers will have to ensure voters and candidates are in the right districts before absentee ballots go out and early voting begins.
“We are pushing up against a pretty tight schedule just simply because of the printing requirement for ballots for the various districts and how those need to go out per federal law,” says Michael Bitzer, professor of history and politics at Catawba College.
On Tuesday, state Board of Elections spokesman Pat Gannon said filing opened for candidates at eight a.m. By 10 a.m., one candidate had filed to run for Congress.
Gannon’s office is accustomed to the legal roller coaster that comes with elections. Monday’s drama was par for the course.
“Until we hear otherwise, everybody is filing [Tuesday],” Gannon says. “We’re used to court actions in elections and this is just another one of those.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Follow Senior Staff Writer Leigh Tauss on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.