North Carolina not required to hold special election to fix racial gerrymandering, court rules

“They say justice delayed is justice denied.”

Voters stand in line at an early voting site in Charlotte, N.C., Oct. 23, 2008. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chuck Burton
Voters stand in line at an early voting site in Charlotte, N.C., Oct. 23, 2008. CREDIT: AP Photo/Chuck Burton

A federal court on Monday declined to order North Carolina to hold a special election before 2018 under new maps that do not pack black voters. Instead, the court simply ordered that new electoral maps be drawn by September 1.

In 2011, the North Carolina legislature redrew the boundaries of its election districts in a way that unconstitutionally harmed black voters. The legislature packed black voters into as few districts as possible, giving them less political influence. Since then, the illegally constituted legislature has passed a ban on local minimum wage increases, tax cuts for corporations, the notorious HB2 that limits civil rights protections for transgender people, and a 2013 voter suppression law that another court found targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision.”

Despite the damage done, a panel of three federal judges on Monday reversed a 2016 federal court order requiring special elections.

In August 2016, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina concluded that 28 legislative districts were racially gerrymandered. The court called for the maps to be redrawn and for North Carolina to hold a special election. The order noted that the costs of a special election “pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander.” North Carolina responded by taking the issue up with the Supreme Court.


In June of this year, the Supreme Court upheld rulings that North Carolina’s legislative and congressional districts were drawn in a way that discriminated against black voters. But it also argued that the trial court did not articulate enough reasons to justify a special election.

Critics noted that the Supreme Court did not act for months, despite the appeal pending and the state legislature dragging its feet on drawing new maps. Prof. Rick Hasen, an election law expert, criticized the Court’s lack of urgency in recent redistricting cases. “They say justice delayed is justice denied,” he wrote in the Washington Post. “If the Supreme Court really cared about voting rights in these election cases, it would be less willing to tolerate delay in protecting voters’ rights.”

The September 1 deadline in Monday’s ruling can be extended until September 15 if North Carolina’s legislature shows it has made progress during the redistricting.

Despite Monday’s ruling, the federal courts have generally acted as a check on many of the North Carolina legislature’s efforts to disenfranchise black voters. In a separate ruling in May, the Supreme Court also declined to review the ruling that struck down the 2013 voter suppression law.

But President Donald Trump is nominating judges — filling a record number of judicial vacancies — who could make that less likely. Trump recently nominated Thomas Farr, a lawyer who defended the North Carolina legislature’s redistricting map and its 2013 voter suppression law, to be a federal judge.


A lawyer with the North Carolina National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said the nomination is “a pure simple case of stacking the judicial deck against voting rights and political participation by African-Americans and other racial minorities.” North Carolina Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D), a former judge, urged his colleagues in the Senate “to carefully scrutinize the record of Thomas Farr and determine if he can impartially serve as a judge in cases involving voting and civil rights.”

Billy Corriher is the Deputy Director of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.

ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed in the Center for American Progress.