At this point, it’s not surprising when Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly have another election law, redistricting, or voting rights lawsuit filed against them, but the latest one is a bit unique.
Since October 2023, there have been at least eight lawsuits filed in opposition to the NCGOP’s election laws and gerrymandered maps, including one filed on Jan. 31 by 11 plaintiffs including former president of the UNC System Tom Ross and former N.C. Sen. Allen Wellons (D-Johnston). In a bipartisan twist, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs is former Republican North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr.
According to WUNC, there is an important distinction between this latest lawsuit and the other seven. The other lawsuits were filed in federal court on racial grounds, claiming that the districts violated federal voting rights protections for minorities, but this lawsuit was filed in Wake County Superior Court. According to Orr, the legal challenge is one of “first impression” and is unlike the previous partisan gerrymandering cases.
“Those cases dealt with the maps in their totality, in the aggregate, and were based really on a proportionality argument as to whether one party or the other should get a specific number of seats,” said Orr. “Our case is not about the political parties. It’s about individual voters.”
Orr is a rarity in conservative politics these days – a (former) Republican who has put his country over his party, or at least today’s version of the GOP. He served as an associate justice on the state high court from 1995 to 2004 and was a registered Republican before switching to unaffiliated “over the GOP’s embrace of Donald Trump,” WUNC reported.
Orr was also one of three “special masters” that was called upon by the state Supreme Court in 2022 to help redraw voting maps after the NCGOP’s maps were thrown out for being unconstitutional due to how racist they were.
Speaking with reporters after the lawsuit was filed, Orr said the latest lawsuit aims to protect “an unenumerated right to free and fair elections guaranteed by the North Carolina Constitution.”
The lawsuit accuses Republicans of filling three new Congressional districts and two state legislative districts with right-leaning voters to ensure election victories this fall.
“Stuffing districts with favorable voters to your side violates that right,” Orr said.
In the 2022 midterm elections, the new court-appointed maps left the NCGOP one seat shy of a legislative supermajority and evenly split the state’s 14 Congressional districts between Republicans and Democrats. Though Republicans had a supermajority in the Senate, they didn’t have one in the House until ex-Democratic State Rep. Tricia Cotham betrayed her voters and became a Republican, giving the NCGOP a supermajority in both chambers.
Cotham’s betrayal has led to the passage of numerous bills, such as ones targeting the rights of LGBTQ+ youth, public school funding, abortion and voting rights. It also gave Republicans control of the redistricting process, which will allow them to lock in these maps.
If the 2024 elections are held under the current maps, which is likely, Republicans will win 10 or 11 of the state’s 14 Congressional districts. They will also have a solid chance at strengthening their veto-proof supermajority in the legislature, which will either aid in thwarting Democrat Josh Stein’s agenda or it will make it very easy for right-wing extremist Mark Robinson to push his anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ+ policies, depending on who wins the gubernatorial race.
Orr said he believes that a more neutral, independent redistricting process could achieve the goals of this latest lawsuit.
“I don’t see any difference between stuffing a ballot box and stuffing a district with your voters,” Orr told WCNC’s Flashpoint. “It really was less about going after the districts and more about trying to get clarification of whether the citizens of North Carolina have a constitutional right to fair elections.”
Orr said he doesn’t anticipate a court ruling that would change any current districts this election year.