NC legislature votes to delay the 2022 primary elections. But will Gov. Cooper veto?

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North Carolina’s 2022 primary elections stand a chance of being delayed again — until June —under a bill that passed Wednesday at the General Assembly.

“The bill will alleviate voter confusion,” said Republican Sen. Warren Daniel of Morganton, a co-chair of the Senate Elections Committee.

It would give the Republican-majority legislature more time to redraw the state’s political district maps in case the N.C. Supreme Court rules the current maps unconstitutional.

That has made Democrats wary of supporting the bill. They unanimously opposed the current maps that Republicans passed in November — and which are now in court, embroiled in gerrymandering lawsuits that are expected to wrap up in February. And they opposed the new bill delaying the election, too.

GOP leaders like Daniel downplayed that angle Wednesday, saying the delay is needed no matter how the court rules. The N.C. State Board of Elections needs extra time for the administrative work required to kick off an election, Daniel said. But at least one Democrat, Sen. Natasha Marcus of Charlotte, said that’s not true.

“I’m just concerned that we’re pushing elections and filing and everything even farther, when we don’t need to,” Marcus said. “We might be jumping the gun here.”

Primaries in North Carolina are usually in March, but they’ve already been delayed once this year because of the gerrymandering lawsuits. The N.C. Supreme Court ordered them moved back to May 17.

House Bill 605, if it becomes law, would move them back to June 7 with any runoff elections to be held later in the summer, if necessary.

Pat Gannon, a spokesman for the state elections board, said they would be able to hold the election on either the current date or the later one the legislature proposed.

“We don’t have a position on the bill and could administer a primary election on May 17 or June 7, as things currently stand,” he said.

Will the delay actually happen?

The bill passed quickly through the legislature on Wednesday, taking less than four hours in a fast-tracked process.

But whether it actually becomes law is still unclear. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper hasn’t explicitly said he will veto it, but he criticized the effort in a written statement Tuesday. And on Wednesday as the legislature debated it, Democratic lawmakers voted against it.

Rep. Robert Reives of Chatham County, the top Democrat in the House, said he understood where Republicans were coming from but was concerned about the appearance of the legislature trying to override the Supreme Court, since it was the court who set the current primary date.

“I worry that that may appear, to those looking in from the outside, of us jumping in on another branch,” he said.

If Cooper vetoes it, Republicans would likely need at least some Democrats to join them in order to override the veto.

Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, the top Democrat in the Senate, said the Supreme Court is fully capable of delaying the primary if it’s necessary — as already happened once — and that the legislature should not try to pick new dates.

“The court is in communication with the Board of Elections, which understands all of the technical aspects of conducting elections,” Blue said. “And so we ought to just let them go ahead and play this thing out.”

Senator Dan Blue of Wake County leaves the Senate floor after voting against the state budget. Blue denounced portions of the budget during debate before the vote on Tuesday, November 16, 2021 in Raleigh, N.C.
Senator Dan Blue of Wake County leaves the Senate floor after voting against the state budget. Blue denounced portions of the budget during debate before the vote on Tuesday, November 16, 2021 in Raleigh, N.C.

Election Day at schools

Many polling places are located at schools, and Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat, pointed out that June 7 is during the last week of the school year. He asked how the state would plan to handle that if the primary was held then, potentially interfering with year-end testing.

Daniel said they hadn’t considered that yet, but thought they could probably work out any problems even if it means delaying final exams. Elections are typically held during the school year.

“I don’t know that that issue has been raised until now,” Daniel told Chaudhuri. “So I don’t really know how to answer it, other than I know a lot of school systems close schools for that date (of an election). So I don’t know if they would just maybe close it, and then test the next day.”

Sen. Warren Daniel, left, talks with Sen. Danny Earl Britt after a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, June 30, 2021.
Sen. Warren Daniel, left, talks with Sen. Danny Earl Britt after a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, June 30, 2021.

Why the date matters

The N.C. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the gerrymandering case on Feb. 2.

The court typically takes months to issue opinions, but both sides in this case expect a sped-up process, with a ruling likely coming in February. Still, even if the ruling comes just a week after oral arguments, that would leave barely more than two weeks for the legislature to redraw the maps in time for the start of candidate filing, which is currently scheduled for Feb. 24.

State law says the legislature must be given two weeks, if the maps are overturned, to have a second chance at drawing maps for the court to review. But the court doesn’t have to accept them. If the justices decide the legislature submitted a second gerrymander, then they could tell lawmakers to try again — or could hire an outside expert to do the work, or potentially even implement replacement maps proposed by the left-leaning challengers in the case.

It’s possible that by pushing the primary back an extra three weeks, from May 17 to June 7, the legislature would buy more time for a potential redraw process to play out — leaving GOP lawmakers better positioned to do it themselves instead of an outside expert being brought in by the court.

And even though the court hasn’t heard arguments in the case yet, let alone issued a ruling, Daniel said lawmakers need to move now because it might end up being too late to make the changes later if they waited to see if the court will overturn the maps.

“Frankly, we have no idea when the Supreme Court will rule, so this is just a precautionary measure,” he said.

Democrats across the board, however, have criticized the move as Republicans trying to game the system.

“The Supreme Court will determine the constitutionality of these districts and legislators should avoid additional attempts to undermine the voting process,” a spokesman for Cooper previously told The News & Observer.

NC Insider editor Brian Murphy contributed reporting.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it at link.chtbl.com/underthedomenc or wherever you get your podcasts.

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