By Colin Campbell

A federal court Tuesday ordered North Carolina to hold a special legislative election next year after 28 state House and Senate districts are redrawn to comply with a gerrymandering ruling.

U.S. District Court judges earlier this year threw out the current legislative district map, ruling that 28 of them were unconstitutional racial gerrymanders. They allowed the 2016 election to continue under the old maps, but ordered legislators to draw new districts in 2017.

Tuesday's order settled the question of whether the new districts would take effect for the regularly scheduled 2018 election cycle, or if a special election would be required.

"While special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander," the three-judge panel wrote in the order.

"The court recognizes that special elections typically do not have the same level of voter turnout as regularly scheduled elections, but it appears that a special election here could be held at the same time as many municipal elections, which should increase turnout and reduce costs."

The order gives legislators a March 15 deadline to draw new district maps. Every legislator whose district is altered will have their current term shortened.

A primary would be held in late August or early September _ the Legislature is responsible for setting the exact date _ with the general election in November, the order says.

Republican legislators who oversee redistricting blasted the decision in a news release Tuesday evening.

"This politically motivated decision, which would effectively undo the will of millions of North Carolinians just days after they cast their ballots, is a gross overreach that blatantly disregards the constitutional guarantee for voters to duly elect their legislators to biennial terms," Rep. David Lewis and Sen. Bob Rucho said in the release, adding that they have already appealed the original U.S. District Court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the Supreme Court hears the case and overturns the ruling, the special election would be canceled and current districts restored for the 2018 election.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which represented plaintiffs in the redistricting lawsuit, praised Tuesday's order.

"North Carolinians deserve fair representation in the state Legislature, and that is impossible to achieve with racially gerrymandered districts," Executive Director Anita Earls said in a news release. "A special election in the affected districts in 2017 is the best way to protect the rights of all North Carolinians."

(c)2016 The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)