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New Electoral Maps Throw North Carolina's Congressional Primary Into Chaos


Five states hold primary elections on Tuesday, and one of them is in chaos. North Carolina's confusing tale includes three judges, two animal shapes and one hastily redrawn map of congressional districts. From member station WFAE, Tom Bullock reports.

TOM BULLOCK, BYLINE: It all started to go off the rails the evening of February 5. That's when three federal judges ruled on a case involving African-American voters who charged the state's 1st and 12th Congressional Districts were racially gerrymandered. The judges agreed and told the state...

JOSH LAWSON: Stop the current election. Go back. Redraw the lines.

BULLOCK: That's Josh Lawson, general counsel for the North Carolina State Board of Elections. If you're not familiar with North Carolina's congressional map, here's where the animals come in. The 1st District looks kind of like an octopus whose body hugs the border with Virginia and whose tentacles stretch east and west and halfway down the state. The 12th Congressional District is more snakelike, sometimes no wider than the span of an interstate.

This decision came out of the blue. The U.S. Justice Department had approved the map five years ago. With an election looming, the state's Republican legislature had just two weeks to redraw those two districts, says Lawson.

LAWSON: It was unclear at that time to what extent that redistricting effort would reach into other districts across the state.

BULLOCK: What emerged was not just a nip here and tuck there. Lawmakers redrew the whole congressional map.

MICHAEL BITZER: Eleven out of the 13 districts saw major changes.

BULLOCK: Michael Bitzer is a political scientist at Catawba College.

BITZER: Some sitting members of Congress woke up the next morning after these maps had been released and went, oh, boy, I don't even live in the district now.

BULLOCK: That's not an exaggeration. Take the snaking 12th District. It's now short, squat and almost two hours away from the home of incumbent Congresswoman Alma Adams. Other districts were also stretched or shifted - again, Josh Lawson.

LAWSON: There are lots of changes and lots of folks who now have different representation than they did before.

BULLOCK: And a lot of logistical hurdles for Lawson and other Board of Elections officials. First comes a process known as geocoding.

LAWSON: Voters need to have a geographic location so that we know who represents them and for which races they are eligible to participate.

BULLOCK: Next, officials need to reprint ballots, which Lawson says is another hurdle.

LAWSON: Yeah. There are more than 4,500 different types of ballots throughout the state.

BULLOCK: And then there's the question of who's on the ballot.

LAWSON: Under the current map, 46 people are running for Congress, but that number would be expected to grow substantially.

BULLOCK: Because of the changes, the state is reopening the filing period to allow more candidates to run in these new districts. All of this takes time, so lawmakers moved the primaries for U.S. House races from March 15 to June 7. However, the March 15 ballots have already been printed, and they include congressional candidates. So election officials are urging North Carolinians to fill the whole thing out even though their vote for U.S. House candidates won't be counted. It's an effort to tamp down confusion - Lawson admits, one he never, ever expected.

LAWSON: I did not foresee that (laughter), personally.

BULLOCK: Now, if all of this isn't confusing enough for you and North Carolina voters, there's one more chapter still to come in this saga. The federal judges who shot down the original map still have to approve this one, tell lawmakers to go back to the drawing board, or the judges could redistrict the state themselves. For NPR News, I'm Tom Bullock in Charlotte, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bullock decided to trade the khaki clad masses and traffic of Washington DC for Charlotte in 2014. Before joining WFAE, Tom spent 15 years working for NPR. Over that time he served as everything from an intern to senior producer of NPR’s Election Unit. Tom also spent five years as the senior producer of NPR’s Foreign Desk where he produced and reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon among others. Tom is looking forward to finally convincing his young daughter, Charlotte, that her new hometown was not, in fact, named after her.
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