NC election officials look to reopen filing period in late February

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – As the legal battle over the state’s new electoral district lines works its way through the court system, state election officials are aiming to restart the candidate filing period in late February to ensure the election moves forward on time.

Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the NC State Board of Elections, said Tuesday there are a lot of “moving parts” to account for to ensure all the preparations can be made to get the process going again.

“It’s not a light switch. We have to actually get everything back setup for filing to reconvene,” she said. “We have a lot of moving parts in elections, and we have to take those into account. It’s not ever about just that one election day.”

The NC Supreme Court recently delayed this year’s primary to May 17 after Democratic and non-partisan groups filed a series of lawsuits against Republicans over the districts they drew for Congress and the General Assembly.

The groups have accused them of “extreme partisan gerrymandering” as the GOP tries to pick up seats this year. Party leaders have denied they used partisan election data in drawing the maps, but experts called on by the plaintiffs at a trial last week described the maps Republicans approved as “statistical outliers” that could lock in Republican majorities for the next decade.

The Supreme Court abruptly stopped candidates from filing for office in early December to give more time for the cases to move forward.

A decision on the constitutionality of the districts by a trial court in Wake County was expected Tuesday. Parties involved in the case expect an appeal soon after to the state Supreme Court.

The NC State Board of Elections has asked the courts to allow filing to resume on Thurs., Feb. 24 and continue through Friday, March 4.

Karen Brinson Bell said her agency needs to secure a space to conduct filing that’s large enough to account for social distancing during the pandemic. Election officials are also trying to comply with federal law to ensure that ballots are prepared at least 45 days before the primary to give people voting by mail ample time to do so.

“Where we are right now with a May primary and a November general, is actually what we had for decades in North Carolina. It’s what we’re accustomed to. So, we’re able to work on this schedule,” she said.

That also means if the courts ultimately determine the districts must be redrawn, that would need to occur in time for the late February filing period to begin.

Dr. Michael Bitzer, who has studied the state’s history of redistricting and is a professor at Catawba College, says generally when courts have thrown out the districts they’ve given the legislature the chance to redraw them.

“There is an opportunity for the courts to insert themselves, to redraw the maps themselves, that has been done in the past,” he said. “But, the likelihood is the Supreme Court would give a list of criteria to the legislature and say follow these rules and you can redistrict without partisan gerrymandering.”

The North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, one of the groups that sued Republicans, proposed alternative maps for the court to adopt. Republicans blasted those maps as gerrymanders that would benefit Democrats.

Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina and another plaintiff in the case, suggested if the matter isn’t resolved quickly enough the primary could be delayed even further.

“It’s possible the primaries could be shifted to July. That’s not unheard of in North Carolina. So, there is indeed time,” he said.

Karen Brinson Bell said while it’s true primaries have occurred that late in the past, there is the added challenge this year of various municipal elections having been pushed to this year. She said any further delays would need to account for potential run-off races in those elections as well as for federal offices.

“It actually becomes kind of challenging this year because we had the situation with some of the municipal elections being affected by the Census,” she said.

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