Important North Carolina Election Cases
This page is a (non-exhaustive) list of major decided court cases directly related to North Carolina elections and election law. Federal cases are only included if at least one of the parties is a North Carolinian.
The cases are listed alphabetically below and grouped by category here.
- Cooper v. Harris (United States Supreme Court, 2017)
- Dickson V. Rucho (North Carolina Supreme Court, 2015)
- Easley v. Cromartie (formerly Hunt v. Cromartie, United States Supreme Court, 2001)
- Harper v. Hall (North Carolina Supreme Court, 2023)
- North Carolina v. Covington (United States Supreme Court, 2018)
- Stephenson v. Bartlett (North Carolina Supreme Court, 2002)
Voting Rules and Rights
- Clark v. Meyland (North Carolina Supreme Court, 1964)
- Holmes v. Moore (North Carolina Supreme Court, 2023)
- Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (United States Supreme Court, 1959)
- North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory (United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, 2016)
Clark v. Meyland (North Carolina Supreme Court, 1964)
Voting Rules and Rights
Blake Clark, a registered Democrat, wanted to vote in the upcoming Republican primary. To do so, he needed to take an oath stating that the change in party affiliation was made in good faith and that he would support the party’s nominees to which he was changing his affiliation. If broken, violators could face a felony. Mr. Clark refused to take the oath, so election officials refused to change his registered party affiliation. The oath read as follows:
“I, ____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I desire in good faith to change my party affiliation from the ______ party to the ______ party, and that such change of affiliation be made on the party registration books, and I further solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the nominees of the party to which I am now changing my affiliation in the next election and the said party nominees thereafter until I shall, in good faith, change my party affiliation in the manner provided by law, so help me God.”
The North Carolina Supreme Court determined that the intent of participating in a primary to support a nominee created a moral obligation amongst voters that would stand with or without the oath. The Court ruled the portion of the oath that required a future commitment invalid. North Carolina authorities were allowed to administer the oath without requiring the portion ruled invalid.
Cooper v. Harris (United States Supreme Court, 2017)
In 2011, the North Carolina General Assembly drew two congressional districts (the 1st and the 12th) to have a black voting age population exceeding fifty percent to comply with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The Department of Justice precleared the map under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
David Harris and Christine Bowser, registered voters in the 1st and 12th districts, alleged that the General Assembly packed black voters in those two districts to weaken their influence elsewhere. A panel of district court judges agreed and found both districts were drawn, with race being the predominant factor, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-3 decision, upheld the lower court’s decision. The high court found that the General Assembly had “established a racial target” of at least 50% black population in each district. Those targets subordinated other redistricting criteria, such as compactness and respecting county lines, making race a predominant factor in drawing those districts.
The districts could still be legal if North Carolina could have proved that using race as the predominant factor in drawing those districts served a “compelling” state interest that could not have been met any other way. However, the court determined that the state had failed to meet that burden of proof.
Dickson V. Rucho (North Carolina Supreme Court, 2015)
Plaintiffs filed suit against officials in the state of North Carolina for congressional and state legislative district maps drawn following the 2010 census. They argued that the districts were unconstitutional due to racial gerrymandering.
A three-judge panel reviewed the plans and concluded that the General Assembly followed traditional redistricting principles and that the plans fulfilled a compelling state interest in complying with the Vote Rights Act. The plaintiffs appealed the three-judge panel’s ruling, but the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the ruling. The plaintiffs then appealed the state’s Supreme Court ruling to the US Supreme Court, which then vacated the lower court’s opinion and remanded the case for further consideration due to the decision in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama.
After reviewing the case, the North Carolina Supreme Court found that the three-judge panel followed the required process laid out in the Alabama case and affirmed their ruling. The justices noted that the VRA districts were created primarily because of the State’s interest in complying with Section 2. Again, the plaintiffs appealed State Supreme Court’s decision to the US Supreme Court, which again remanded the case for further consideration due to the decision in Cooper v. Harris (see the entry for that case on this page).
The North Carolina Supreme Court remanded the case to the Wake County Superior Court to determine if Dickson v. Rucho was moot. The Wake County Superior Court found the district maps in question unconstitutional but ruled the case moot due to the district maps already being redrawn due to Cooper v. Harris. The legislative defendants were granted a motion to dismiss the appeal.
Easley v. Cromartie (formerly Hunt v. Cromartie, United States Supreme Court, 2001)
In 1997 the North Carolina General Assembly was tasked with redrawing their district maps due to Shaw v. Hunt. In that case, the United States Supreme Court ruled district maps unconstitutional because race was a predominant factor in the drawing of North Carolina’s Twelfth Congressional District. The redrawn 12th District was again challenged. The District Court found the new district map was created with race as a predominant factor, ruling the maps unconstitutional. The case was appealed.
North Carolina’s 12th Congressional District made its way to the United States Supreme Court for the third time in six years. The Supreme Court found that there was insufficient evidence to show that the use of race as a factor when drawing the 12th District was done so in an unconstitutional way. Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Bryer acknowledged that race was considered when the General Assembly redrew the 12th District. But he noted, “The evidence taken together, however, does not show that racial considerations predominated in the drawing of District 12’s boundaries.”
Harper v. Hall (North Carolina Supreme Court, 2023)
The North Carolina General Assembly drew new congressional and state legislative districts in late 2021 following a COVID-delayed 2020 decennial census. The maps were immediately subjected to several lawsuits, two of which were combined into this case.
The courts acted with uncharacteristic speed. A lower court enjoined candidate filing in December of 2021, and the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down all three maps (House, Senate, congressional) on February 4, 2022, in a 4-3 party-line decision. The majority found that the maps were “unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt under the free elections clause, the equal protection clause, the free speech clause, and the freedom of assembly clause of the North Carolina Constitution.” They found that maps that make it more difficult for members of one party to elect a majority “infringe” on the “fundamental right to vote.”
The high court remanded the case to the Wake County Superior Court to administer the ruling. That court upheld the General Assembly’s remedial House and Senate maps. However, it rejected the remedial congressional map and ordered a panel of three special masters to draw the congressional map for the 2022 election.
The plaintiffs appealed the lower court’s acceptance of the Senate map. The state Supreme Court bypassed standard appeals procedures to hear that appeal in October of 2022, a month before an election that swept in a new 5-2 Republican majority. It overturned the Senate map in a December 2022 ruling.
The lateness of the second ruling allowed the General Assembly to ask the new Supreme Court majority to rehear the case in a rarely-used procedure.
The state Supreme Court issued a new ruling on April 28, 2023. The 5-2 (again, party-line) majority found that the previous majority had erred in the Harper 1 and 2 rulings. They found that the previous majority had overstepped the bounds of its constitutional authority:
Our constitution expressly assigns the redistricting authority to the General Assembly subject to explicit limitations in the text. Those limitations do not address partisan gerrymandering. It is not within the authority of this Court to amend the constitution to create such limitations on a responsibility that is textually assigned to another branch. Furthermore, were this Court to create such a limitation, there is no judicially discoverable or manageable standard for adjudicating such claims. The constitution does not require or permit a standard known only to four justices. Finally, creating partisan redistricting standards is rife with policy decisions. Policy decisions belong to the legislative branch, not the judiciary.
The court further ruled that the General Assembly had drawn their original 2021 maps under a “mistaken interpretation of our constitution,” based on the 2019 Harper v. Lewis decision. Therefore, the 2021 Plans were “not ‘established,’ as that phrase is used in Article II, Sections 3(4) and 5(4) (of the North Carolina constitution. So, rather than upholding the General Assembly’s original maps, the court ordered the legislature to draw new maps before the 2024 election.
Holmes v. Moore (North Carolina Supreme Court, 2023)
Voting Rules and Rights
North Carolina voters added a voter ID provision to the North Carolina Constitution in November of 2018. The General Assembly then passed enabling legislation in a December special session while they still had veto-proof majorities in both the House and Senate.
A trial court overturned the law, and the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed that ruling in December of 2022 in a 4-3 party-line vote. However, a new 5-2 Republican majority agreed with the defendants to rehear the case due to procedural and legal errors in the first ruling.
The state’s high court then reversed the trial court’s ruling and upheld the voter ID law in a 5-2 (again, party-line) decision in April 2023. They noted that, in a racial discrimination claim, plaintiffs must prove both that legislation will have a disparate impact on voters and that it was passed with discriminatory intent. The trial court had erred when it “erroneously placed the burden on the General Assembly to overcome a presumption of legislative bad faith.” The court also chastised the trial court for several factual errors.
Writing for the majority, Justice Phil Berger Jr. affirmed a stance against what he saw as judicial overreach by the previous court majority:
The people of North Carolina overwhelmingly support voter identification and other efforts to promote greater integrity and confidence in our elections. Subjective tests and judicial sleight of hand have systematically thwarted the will of the people and the intent of the legislature. But no court exists for the vindication of political interests, and judges exceed constitutional boundaries when they act as a super-legislature. This Court has traditionally stood against the waves of partisan rulings in favor of the fundamental principle of equality under the law. We recommit to that fundamental principle and begin the process of returning the judiciary to its rightful place as “the least dangerous” branch.
Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (United States Supreme Court, 1959)
Voting Rules and Rights
Louise Lassiter, a Black woman in Northampton County, North Carolina, applied to become a registered voter. She refused to complete a state-required literacy test, which resulted in her application being denied. The literacy test comes from Article VI, Section 4 of the North Carolina State Constitution: “Every person presenting himself for registration shall be able to read and write any section of the Constitution in the English language.” The state had also passed statutes to enforce that provision of the constitution.
Lassiter appealed the decision to her County Board of Elections, where she once again refused to complete a literacy test and was once again denied the ability to vote. She then appealed her case to the Superior Court in Northampton County, claiming the literacy test violated her Fourteenth, Fifteenth, and Seventeenth Amendment rights granted in the United States Constitution. The Superior Court ruled against her and upheld the literacy test requirement. The North Carolina Supreme Court also upheld the literacy test.
In May of 1959, the case made its way to the United States Supreme Court. The high court came to two conclusions:
1. A State may, consistently with the Fourteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, apply a literacy test to all voters irrespective of race or color.
2. The North Carolina requirement here involved, which is applicable to members of all races and requires that the prospective voter “be able to read and write any section of the Constitution of North Carolina in the English language,” does not on its face violate the Fifteenth Amendment.
The lawsuit was on the language of the literacy test itself, not how it was practiced.
The federal Voting Rights Act later banned literacy tests.
Moore v. Harper (United States Supreme Court, 2023)
This case spun off from the Harper v. Moore case in the North Carolina Supreme Court. After that court overturned congressional and state legislative maps, General Assembly defendants appealed to the US Supreme Court. They claimed that only federal courts had the authority to
The court rejected the independent legislature theory as a concept. Still, it addressed the limits on state courts in taking over “the role specifically reserved to state legislatures by Article I, Section 4, of the Federal Constitution” [the Elections Clause].
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that state courts have the authority to “apply state constitutional restraints” when legislators make laws that affect federal elections (including redistricting), but they may not “transgress the ordinary bounds of judicial review such that they arrogate to themselves the power vested in state legislatures to regulate federal elections.” However, the majority decision avoided providing a test for what such a transgression might look like.
The North Carolina Supreme Court had reversed its decision in Harper v Moore before the US Supreme Court issued its opinion in Moore v Harper, meaning that there was no longer a conflict between the state court and the General Assembly. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in his dissent: “The issue on which it opines—a federal defense to claims already dismissed on other grounds—can no longer affect the judgment in this litigation in any way. As such, the question is indisputably moot, and today’s majority opinion is plainly advisory.”
North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory (United States Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, 2016)
Voting Rules and Rights
The North Carolina General Assembly passed House Bill 589, a so-called “omnibus election bill, in 2013. The bill initially only created a voter ID requirement. However, legislators expanded it into an “omnibus” election bill after the US Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision. That decision struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which set up a formula to determine which states needed preclearance from the federal government to make changes to their election laws. North Carolina was one of the states covered under that preclearance formula. The expanded bill also shortened the maximum number of days counties could conduct early voting from 17 to 10 and eliminated same-day voter registration.
The North Carolina branch of the NAACP led a group of plaintiffs suing North Carolina over the law. A federal district court ruled in favor of North Carolina, dismissing the case with prejudice.
The plaintiffs appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which struck down all of HB 589 as violating the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution and Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. The court said the law’s provisions “target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “we can only conclude that the North Carolina General Assembly enacted the challenged provisions of the law with discriminatory intent.”
The United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
North Carolina v. Covington (United States Supreme Court, 2018)
In late 2016 the U. S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina found four North Carolina Senate Districts to be racial gerrymanders. It ordered the General Assembly to redraw several districts the court found to be racial gerrymanders and further ordered special elections for those districts in 2017. The Supreme Court reversed that order in a per curiam (unsigned) opinion, allowing those districts to stand until the 2018 election.
The High Court revisited the Case in 2018. The district court had again ordered the General Assembly to redraw state legislative districts. The legislature submitted new district maps, but plaintiffs objected, saying that several districts were still racial gerrymanders and that the General Assembly redrew five state House districts (in Mecklenburg and Wake counties) that were not affected by the lawsuit, violating the North Carolina Constitution’s prohibition of mid-decade redistricting. The district court upheld those objections, ordering a special master to draw some districts and for the redrawn districts not affected by racial gerrymandering claims to return to their prior form.
The Supreme Court found, again in a per curiam decision, that the district court “turned up sufficient circumstantial evidence that race was the predominant factor” in drawing several districts and upheld the lower court’s order for a special master to redraw those districts.
However, it stated that the lower court had overstepped its “proper role in North Carolina’s legislative districting process” by trying to enforce a provision of the North Carolina Constitution.
Stephenson v. Bartlett (North Carolina Supreme Court, 2002)
The “whole-county provision” of the North Carolina constitution requires that the General Assembly not divide counties when drawing state legislative districts. An exception is if dividing counties is needed to comply with federal law. The state constitution also requires that each legislator “represent, as nearly as may be, an equal number of inhabitants.” The General Assembly traditionally handled conflicts between those provisions by creating multimember districts in more populous counties.
In 1981, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) did not grant preclearance to North Carolina state district maps, an authority given to the DOJ by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. They said the maps contained no majority-minority single-member districts and
submerged minority populations within large White-majority multi-member districts. The General Assembly responded by dividing counties, a practice they continued in 1991 and 2001.
In 2001, Ashley Stephenson, a resident of Beaufort County, and others filed suit against North Carolina for the 2001 state legislative redistricting plans. They claimed the plans violated the whole-county provision more than was necessary to comply with federal law.
The North Carolina Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that struck down the 2001 legislative maps for violating the whole-county provision more than was necessary to comply with federal law (Stephenson I). The majority stated that the provision was an “objective limitation upon the authority of incumbent legislators to redistrict and reapportion” in a way that split the natural coalitions that counties provide. They ordered the legislature to enforce the whole-county provision “must be enforced to the maximum extent possible” when drawing districts. Part of that ruling set up a county grouping or cluster process, in which counties are first grouped to form a set of one or more districts, and then districts are drawn within those groupings.
The court also stated that multimember districts were subject to strict judicial scrutiny when combined with single-member districts. Such districts could only be drawn if needed to “advance a compelling governmental interest.” The General Assembly has not drawn multimember districts since the Stephenson ruling.
The General Assembly drew remedial maps in 2002. The trial court also struck those down as unconstitutional and imposed its own maps for the 2002 election. In 2003 the state Supreme Court upheld that trial court ruling (Stephenson II). The high court found “numerous instances where the 2002 revised redistricting plans are constitutionally deficient.” The order sent the General Assembly to the drawing board yet again. The General Assembly drew compliant maps in 2003 that were used for the rest of the decade.