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North Carolina's Congressional Primaries Are A Mess Because Of These Maps

North Carolina voters are likely to be confused when they arrive at their polling places on March 15. In addition to presidential candidates, voters will see congressional primary candidates on the ballot.

But thanks to a federal court decision, the districts those candidates represent no longer exist and any votes in those races won't count.

Thanks to three judges, two animal shapes and one hastily redrawn map of U.S. House seats, North Carolina politics have been thrown into chaos.

It started to go off the rails Feb. 5 when a panel of three federal judges determined that the boundaries of the state's 1st and 12th congressional districts were drawn in such a way as to concentrate African-American voters and dilute their overall influence.

Coming just five weeks ahead of voting, there was no choice but to "stop the current election, go back, redraw the lines," said Josh Lawson, general counsel for the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

Redrawing The Animal Shapes

If you're not familiar with North Carolina's congressional map, here's where the animal shapes come into play.

The 1st District looks kind of like an octopus whose body hugs the Virginia border and whose tentacles stretch east and west and halfway down the state.

The 12th congressional district is more snakelike — sometimes no wider than an interstate — and extends more than 80 miles from Charlotte to Winston-Salem.

The federal court decision surprised many in the state, especially because the U.S. Department of Justice approved the maps five years ago.

Faced with the court order, the state's Republican Legislature opted for a drastic redrawing of North Carolina's entire congressional map, finishing the job in just two weeks.

"Eleven out of the 13 districts saw major changes," said Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College. "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.' "

In fact, the home of Democratic U.S. Rep. Alma Adams in the old, snaking 12th District is two hours away from the borders of the newly redrawn, short and squat 12th District.

Most of the other districts were also stretched or shifted, which means that "lots of folks now have different representation than they did before," said Lawson.

Primary Chaos

The process has created a host of logistical hurdles for elections officials in North Carolina, starting with a process known as geocoding to determine who represents every voter in the state. Next, officials need to reprint more than 4,500 different types of ballots. And then there's the question of who's on the ballot.

"Under the current map, 46 people are currently running for Congress, but that number would be expected to grow substantially," said Lawson, because the state has reopened the filing period to allow more candidates to run in the newly drawn districts.

All of this takes time. So, state 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 have urged North Carolina voters to fill out the entire ballot — even though votes for U.S. House candidates won't be counted.

It's an effort to avoid confusion, although telling voters to cast votes in a race that isn't happening yet is a situation that Lawson admits he did not foresee.

The federal judges who threw out the original congressional map still have to approve the one drawn by the state lawmakers. If the judges reject it, they can tell the Legislature to redraw the map, or the judges will redistrict the state themselves.

Copyright 2016 WFAE

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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