- Associated Press - Friday, April 13, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina trial-court judges refused Friday to delay state legislative elections in and around Raleigh next month while litigation challenging several House districts continues.

A three-judge panel declined to halt the May 8 primary for at least four Wake County House races because voting is already happening. The decision also likely preserves the use of those and surrounding Wake districts in the November general election. General Assembly boundaries have been redrawn since last summer by Republican legislators and federal courts, the result of other lawsuits.

In the latest case, state NAACP, League of Women Voters of North Carolina and other groups and voters argued the GOP-controlled General Assembly went too far last August when lawmakers altered four Wake House districts.

Since those districts didn’t touch two others that courts had found to be racial gerrymanders, their lawsuit says, altering the four violated a provision in the state constitution otherwise prohibiting redistricting during the middle of a decade.

Attorneys for legislative leaders disagree and have said lawmakers were within their responsibilities to redraw them.

In their order, the Superior Court judges gave the plaintiffs hope they would be ultimately be successful, writing they “have demonstrated a reasonable likelihood of success on the merits of their claims.”

But their request for a preliminary injunction was denied because if granted it would halt ongoing House races “and more importantly, would interrupt voting by citizens already underway,” according to the order by Superior Court Judge Paul Ridgeway, Joseph Crosswhite and Alma Hinton. Mail-in absentee voting for the primary began last month, and in-person absentee voting starts next week.

The chief attorney representing those who sued highlighted the court’s comments about future success.

“We will aggressively litigate this case to final resolution to ensure there are fair districts in place by the time voters go to the ballot box in 2020,” Allison Riggs with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said in a release. “Basic legal principles of equality demand that voters in Wake County have the same right to vote in constitutional districts as every other resident in the state.”

Riggs’ clients said Republicans altered three of the four districts to improve chances for Republican election victories because the districts had become politically more competitive during the decade. The plaintiffs want the lines of those four districts returned to how they were first drawn in 2011. That would require adjoining districts to be adjusted, too.

Had the injunction been granted, primary choices in the four districts wouldn’t have been counted, and special primary elections may have been required in the summer for those and other Wake County districts that also had to be altered to comply.

The boundary lines are gaining more importance as optimistic Democrats seek to end the GOP’s veto-proof majorities in November and Republicans try to remain in charge at the Legislative Building.

GOP Rep. David Lewis of Harnett County, the House redistricting committee chairman and a lawsuit defendant, praised the court’s ruling and again accused Democrats of suing repeatedly to regain electoral advantage. Democrats or their allies have been in court challenging North Carolina legislative and congressional districts continuously within months of maps based on 2010 census figures were approved.

“Wake County voters will vote in clean, compact, and competitive races this fall,” Lewis said in a release. “I am confident the General Assembly will ultimately prevail against these claims.”

A panel of three federal judges agreed with plaintiffs in a related lawsuit that Republicans violated the state constitution by altering the four Wake County districts and one House district in Mecklenburg County. But in February the U.S. Supreme Court blocked those changes while there’s a broader appeal of the General Assembly maps.

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