Gerrymandering: Drawing districts for political advantage

Camille Francis
June 20, 2017

While the Supreme Court has ruled on many aspects of the districting process - banning state legislative districts with unequal populations and banning districts meant to disenfranchise black voters - it has issued muddled opinions on the question of whether partisan gerrymanders are unconstitutional.

The case will be "one of the most important cases of the decade", said Michael Li, a redistricting expert at the New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.

The lower court ruled that the Republican-led legislature's redrawing of state legislative districts in 2011 amounted to "an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander", a term meaning manipulating electoral boundaries for an unfair political advantage.

The case involves district lines in Wisconsin that challengers say were drawn unconstitutionally to benefit Republicans.

Burden noted that because the Wisconsin case only deals with state legislative districts, separate litigation would be needed to deal with the way congressional districts are drawn.

Federal courts have previously ruled that maps that employ "racial gerrymandering" are unconstitutional. The four liberals (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan) dissented.

"Asked to comment Monday, Governor Scott Walker said", 'One person, one vote, ' the principles of community of interest, ensuring minority voting rights, all those things are protected in the plan that was passed by the Assembly and the Senate that I signed into law and I believe, in the end, the United States Supreme Court will uphold it".

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This new case could allow the justices to provide some clarity on political gerrymandering while dramatically affecting the way states draw new district lines following the 2020 Census.

Defenders of the Wisconsin plan argued that the election results it produced are similar to those under earlier court-drawn maps.

It's the high court's first case on what's known as partisan gerrymandering in more than a decade.

A three-judge panel ruled the map illegal and ordered a new one drawn by later this year.

The Supreme Court has been reluctant to tackle partisan gerrymandering and sort through arguments about whether an electoral system is rigged or, instead, a party's political advantage is due to changing attitudes and demographics, as Wisconsin Republicans contend. That same panel of judges then took issue with the Texas map of state house districts, which they said intentionally discriminated against minorities statewide and in particular districts, a month later. The district's representative, Republican Henry Bonilla, ended up losing to Democrat Ciro Rodriguez in an election after the district's lines were redrawn.

In the past, the Supreme Court has struck down racial gerrymandering as unconstitutional, but it has never agreed to strike down a state's electoral map on the grounds it was overly partisan. Former president Barack Obama has said that one of his post-presidency projects will be to combat partisan gerrymanders after the 2020 Census. And the reverse applies in Democrat states, although they are fewer in number. On Monday, it was clear that these Justices favored that action, although the order did not name them explicitly; Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr., Neil M. Gorsuch, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas. In 2014, Republicans won 52 percent of the vote and increased their state assembly majority to 63 seats. In 2012, for example, Democrats could have held a 17-seat majority in the House over Republicans were it not for partisan gerrymandering, according to the Bennan Center's analysis.

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