Another lawsuit challenging North Carolina district lines for Congress and the legislature to be used starting this year seeks a new legal route to strike down maps when critics say they've been manipulated for political gain.

Nearly a dozen voters are plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Wake County Superior Court that asks judges to declare there's a right in the state constitution to “fair” elections. They also want at least several congressional and General Assembly districts that they say violate that right struck down and redrawn.

At least three redistricting lawsuits challenging the lines enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly in the fall for use through the 2030 elections have been filed in federal court. All of them alleged illegal racial gerrymandering that dilutes the voting power of Black citizens.

Federal and North Carolina courts halted in recent years the idea that judges have authority to declare redistricting maps are illegal partisan gerrymanders because one party manipulates lines excessively to win more elections. Wednesday's lawsuit appears to attempt to bypass those rulings in North Carolina courtrooms.

The text of the North Carolina Constitution doesn’t specifically identify a right to fair elections, although it does state that elections “shall be often held” and that “all elections shall be free.”

When combined with a clause stating the people have many other unnamed rights, the argument can be made that fair elections are also a constitutional entitlement as well, said Bob Orr, a former state Supreme Court justice and lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

“The focus and purpose behind this lawsuit is to hopefully get a positive answer that citizens do have a right to fair elections and stuffing districts with favorable voters to your side violates that right,” Orr told reporters. “What good are free elections if they’re not fair, or what good are frequent elections if they’re not fair?”

Democrats and others have accused GOP mapmakers of enacting district lines in October that pulled in and out voting blocs so Republicans have a good chance to retain veto-proof majorities in the General Assembly and made it nearly impossible for three sitting Democratic members of Congress to be reelected. All three of them chose not to seek reelection.

The lawsuit details how redrawing lines for the 6th, 13th and 14th Congressional Districts, a Wilmington-area state Senate district and Charlotte-area state House district violated the right to free elections.

The case will be heard by a three-judge panel appointed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby. It ultimately could end up at the Supreme Court, where Republicans hold five of the seven seats and last year agreed that the state constitution did not limit the practice of drawing maps with partisan gain in mind. That ruling reversed a 2022 decision by a state Supreme Court that had a Democratic majority.

While the lawsuit seeks changes in time for the 2024 elections, resolving the case before the fall would appear to be a heavy lift.

Republican legislative leaders are among the lawsuit defendants. GOP lawmakers have said their maps were lawfully created by following longstanding redistricting principles and omitting the use of racial data in drawing them.

Orr, once a Republican candidate for governor but now an unaffiliated voter, said Wednesday's lawsuit is different from partisan gerrymandering claims, which relied in part on other portions of the state constitution.

Orr said it's not about previous arguments that one political party drew districts that set their candidates up to win a number of seats far and above the party's percentage in the electorate. Rather, he said, it's about protecting the rights of individual voters, who with fair elections are provided with the power to limit their government.

“When there is an intentional aggregation and apportionment of voters in a district that tilts the election toward one political party or candidate and therefore, potentially preordains the outcome of an election, then a “fair” election cannot take place and the constitutional rights of the voters have been violated,” the lawsuit reads. The lawsuit offers a three-pronged standard to determine what is a fair election.

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