A panel of North Carolina judges on Wednesday approved a finalized set of voting maps likely to give Democrats a boost in this year’s elections—a decision Republican lawmakers and voting groups swiftly appealed hours ahead of the scheduled restart of candidate filing.

The emergency appeals to the North Carolina Supreme Court are the latest development in a months-long fight over how voters should be represented and which party can expand its political power.

The congressional and state House and Senate maps approved by a trial court include a larger number of competitive districts compared to Republican-drawn plans that were passed by lawmakers in November.

The trial court, which includes two Republicans and one Democrat, approved state House and Senate boundaries that state lawmakers redrew last week but it went with a congressional map of its own crafted with the help of independent redistricting experts known as “special masters.”

Hours after the ruling was handed down, three voting rights groups involved in the lawsuit appealed the state Senate map, while one asked for a tweak to the state House map.

Republican leaders, meanwhile, challenged the lower court’s congressional map, which they said was “drawn in an unknown, black-box manner.”

“Today’s ruling is nothing short of egregious,” state House Speaker Tim Moore said in a statement. “The trial court’s decision to impose a map drawn by anyone other than the legislature is simply unconstitutional and an affront to every North Carolina voter whose representation would be determined by unelected, partisan activists.”

Republican Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement that he supports the appeal of the trial court’s interim congressional map but believes “it’s time to move on and allow the filing period to begin” on Thursday, as scheduled.

Candidate filing, which the high court justices suspended in December, is scheduled to resume at 8 a.m. Thursday and end at noon on March 4. The statewide primary election will be held May 17.

The GOP maps approved in November were ultimately rejected by the state Supreme Court, where a 4-3 Democratic majority of justices determined the plans were partisan gerrymanders that violated the state constitution. The high court ordered the lower court that first heard the redistricting case to oversee the legislature’s redraw process.

Interim Congressional map approved Feb. 23, 2022, by the three judge panel in Harper v. Hall, North Carolina's redistricting case.

If the lower-court’s decision stands, the congressional map would be in effect only for the 2022 election as an interim solution. The legislative boundaries could remain in place for the next decade, though state law and the state constitution appear to conflict on the matter.

Voting groups want the state Supreme Court to address the issue by ordering the legislative maps be used for the next decade.

Congressional boost for Democrats

The congressional plan Republican lawmakers passed in November would have given the GOP 10 or 11 of the 14 U.S. House seats up for grabs, with only one seat being strongly competitive, up from the party’s current 8-5 advantage.

Under the legislature’s redraw, Republicans could have had a 10-4 advantage in an election year that was bad for Democrats, though four of the 14 districts were competitive.

Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist who testified on behalf of voting groups last month, believes the congressional map safely gives Republicans a 7-6 advantage, with the 13th district being the only highly competitive race.

Two additional seats, the 7th and 14th, are somewhat competitive.

An election cycle that could be favorable to the GOP would give Republicans a 9-5 advantage. But Democrats could secure an 8-6 majority if they win three contentious races, according to redistricting experts.

“The overall representation of the state in Congress is going to align more closely to the statewide vote totals,” said Eric Heberlig, a UNC-Charlotte political scientist. “You’re going to have relatively even numbers of Democrats and Republicans representing the state in Congress rather than the lopsided Republican majority that we’ve seen over the last decade.”

Heberlig and Asher Hildebrand, a Duke University political scientist and former Democratic operative who encouraged the trial court to throw out the congressional map Republicans passed last week, said the 7th, 13th and 14th districts are likely to be the most competitive.

The 13th district, which includes southern Wake County, all of Johnston County and parts of Wayne and Harnett counties, is most likely to be the closest contest. The 7th leans Republican, while the 14th leans Democratic.

Court approves redrawn legislative maps

Both legislative maps reduce the GOP’s prospects of recapturing veto-proof control of either chamber compared to the November maps.

The legislature’s revised state House map got strong bipartisan support in the Republican-controlled General Assembly. No Democrat voted in favor of the congressional or state Senate maps.

The North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, Common Cause NC and a group of voters involved in the redistricting case, challenged the Senate map.

“We are disappointed this panel approved a state Senate map which fails to treat all citizens fairly and equally, regardless of party, race, or region,” said a statement from Carrie Clark, the voting group’s executive director. “Our legal battle for fair maps, free elections and a government that truly reflects the will of the people will continue.”

Common Cause also appealed the House map, seeking to tweak one district.

North Carolina Trial Court State Senate Map

Hildebrand, the Duke political scientist, thinks the Senate’s plan is likely to remain at 28-22 under the proposed map.

Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College redistricting expert, believes the proposed Senate map includes 22 likely to go to Republicans, 18 expected to go to Democrats and 10 seats up for grabs. Of the 10 competitive races, Bitzer believes six are more favorable to Democrats in 2022 while four favor Republicans.

In a statement after the trial court’s order, Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, said elections should not go forward until the state Senate map is tweaked.

“Today’s decision allows a blatantly unfair and unconstitutional state Senate map that may have been the worst of the bunch,” Cooper wrote. “That is bad for North Carolina because it strips voters of their voice in our democracy. Our elections should not go forward until we have fair, constitutional maps.”​

Republicans currently hold a 69-51 seat advantage in the chamber.

North Carolina Trial Court State House Map

Under the legislature’s redrawn map the trial court approved, Bitzer identified 53 safe GOP seats, 45 safe Democratic seats and 22 close contests, including 15 that lean Democratic and seven that lean Republican.

Meanwhile, judges on Wednesday rejected efforts by attorneys for GOP state lawmakers to remove two research assistants helping the special masters inform the court about which maps to approve.

WRAL statehouse reporters Paul Specht and Travis Fain contributed to this report.

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