North Carolina congresswoman Alma Adams was sitting in a campaign meeting at her headquarters in Greensboro, North Carolina, in early February, planning for what should have been an easy primary win. No Democratic challengers had declared their candidacy in time for the 15 March election. Victory was all but guaranteed. Before the meeting ended, one of her staffers interrupted with some unexpected news. A panel of three federal judges had ruled that the 12th district’s congressional map – which resembled a serpent slithering across central North Carolina’s cities – was unconstitutional due to racial gerrymandering. The district would need to be redrawn, the judges said. It was a win for racial justice, legal observers said. But the map redrawing that followed – the latest episode in a decades-old legal saga over the district lines – wasn’t a win for voter enfranchisement this election, in this deep blue district where the primary is likely to decide the race. When state lawmakers two weeks later redrew most of the state’s districts, the 70-year-old black Greensboro lawmaker discovered her home was nearly two hours away from the new Charlotte-centric district.
The odd timing for the 2013 lawsuit’s ruling meant North Carolina’s congressional primary was postponed three months until 7 June – the latest blow in a place where redistricting has long disenfranchised voters. Hundreds of absentee voters had already cast ballots. Six other candidates who hadn’t filed by the initial deadline joined the rescheduled race, launching attacks that decried Adams as a carpetbagger.
On Tuesday, Adams ultimately won 42% of the vote in a seven-person Democratic primary. As many predicted, the 12th district’s congressional primary, like the rest of the state, saw only 7% of total registered voters head to the polls.
In March, with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders still competing for the Democratic nomination in North Carolina, 17% of registered voters cast ballots, and broke the record for early voting turnout. By the time of the rescheduled congressional race, it became the primary nobody was watching while Clinton was clinching the Democratic presidential nomination in several other state primaries.