The U.S. Supreme Court’s Jan. 18 decision to pause a nine-day-old federal court ruling against North Carolina’s congressional map was the latest turn in a legal war that has made the state’s electoral system the most chaotic in the U.S. The temporary stay is part of a wider, national challenge to the kind of political gerrymandering that has helped breed hyperpartisanship across the country. The Supreme Court gave North Carolina a reprieve while it considers partisan gerrymandering cases in Wisconsin and Maryland, with decisions expected in May or June. In Pennsylvania the state Supreme Court rejected partisan congressional maps on Jan. 22.
What sets North Carolina apart, though, is the breadth of institutions that have been thrown against a wall. As the state prepares for 2018 campaign filing deadlines in February, congressional and Statehouse maps and even the district boundaries for the judges who handle garden-variety divorces and drunken driving cases are all in flux. Candidates for North Carolina’s 13 U.S. House seats are poised to run for the fourth election cycle in a row under maps deemed unconstitutional by federal courts. State legislature candidates don’t know who their voters are in at least nine districts. Judges have had their primaries canceled and are threatened with a constitutional amendment throwing them out of office at the end of this year.
Meanwhile, the state elections board charged with overseeing voting in the state has been vacant for seven months. After Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor in 2016, Republicans in the Statehouse passed a law effectively stripping the governor’s office of its authority to appoint a majority of its members. The board has been empty ever since, as the fight has moved through the courts. On Jan. 26 the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional for a second time, handing a political victory to Cooper, who can now go about filling the vacancies. The board has a lot of problems waiting for it. For the past seven months, aging voting equipment couldn’t be replaced, ethics complaints weren’t investigated, and no one had the authority to decertify voting software that malfunctioned in 2016 and whose vendor has been a target of Russian cyberattacks.