4th Circuit Declines to Block New North Carolina Senate Map for 2024 Elections

WASHINGTON, D.C. — North Carolina’s new state Senate districts will remain in place for the 2024 general election as a result of a 2-1 opinion issued this morning by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling affirms a lower court’s decision that denied Black voters’ request to preliminarily block the map earlier this year. 

Last October, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled Legislature redrew the state Senate districts — along with the state House and congressional districts — nearly five months after the state Supreme Court’s newly constituted Republican majority greenlit partisan gerrymandering and overturned its prior redistricting decisions.

In response to the new state Senate map, Black voters filed a federal lawsuit in November 2023 alleging that the newly drawn 1st and 2nd Senate Districts violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and “crack” Black voters across multiple districts. The lawsuit argues that the districts unlawfully deprived Black voters of the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice in the Black Belt counties of northeastern North Carolina, including Bertie, Hertford, Edgecombe, Northampton and Halifax Counties.

A federal judge in January declined the voters’ preliminary motion to block the state Senate map and adopt a new one prior to the 2024 elections that includes a minority-opportunity district in the northeast part of the state. In that ruling, a Bush-appointed federal judge wrote that there is “insufficient evidence [to show] that Section 2 requires a majority-black Senate district in northeast North Carolina.” The judge added that doing so would amount to the creation of a racially gerrymandered district that was impermissibly drawn using “race-based sorting.” 

In addition to concluding that the Black voters who brought the case “are not likely to succeed on the merits of their Section 2 claim,” the judge held that granting the voters’ request would constitute a “textbook violation” of the Purcell principle the idea that changing voting laws or maps too close to an election would cause voter confusion.  

The plaintiffs immediately appealed the judge’s January 2023 ruling to the 4th Circuit, which heard oral argument last month. In today’s opinion affirming the district court’s denial, the two-judge majority composed of a Trump and Reagan appointee wrote that the plaintiffs “have not shown that they are likely to prevail on their Section 2 claim or suffer irreparable harm.”

Echoing the district court’s concerns about the Purcell principle, the majority emphasized that “[t]he 2024 North Carolina Senate election is well underway,” noting that the statewide primary election already occurred on March 5, 2024. Any change to the map at this point, the majority opinion stated, “would result in the voter confusion and disruptive consequences the Purcell principle is designed to avoid.”

In a lengthy dissenting opinion, Judge Roger Gregory — who was confirmed during George W. Bush’s presidency — stated that the district court committed “legal error” by improperly assessing the challenged districts under the Voting Rights Act. 

Gregory also disagreed with the Purcell justification proffered by his colleagues and the district court: “[Purcell] is not a mandate that courts sit on their hands in the weeks before the election, when they still have time to engage in reasoned decision-making, solely because an election is impending.”

Following today’s ruling, litigation over the state Senate map will continue in the district court. Meanwhile, two other federal lawsuits challenging North Carolina’s newly drawn maps remain ongoing. One case, filed by the NAACP in December 2023, challenges the state’s legislative and congressional districts under both the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution and seeks new districts prior to the 2026 election cycle. The other, brought by a group of Black and Latino voters, brings U.S. constitutional claims solely against the congressional map. 

Read the opinion here.

Learn more about the case here.