The U.S. Supreme Court has just announced that it will hear a partisan gerrymandering case from Maryland, and its forthcoming decision on the case, combined with the Gill vs. Whitford Wisconsin case heard last fall, could set a new standard for all states.
Last week, the court also temporarily blocked a trial court’s order requiring North Carolina lawmakers to produce a revised congressional voting map. The trial court had found that Republican legislators there violated the Constitution by drawing voting districts to hurt the electoral chances of Democratic candidates.
The stakes are not merely about the arcane and obscure slicing and dicing of district boundaries, but raise far more fundamental questions about the increasing threats to real democracy in the United States.
Will America have truly representative democracy, where all votes of citizens are approximately equal in value? Or will state governments be able to draw legislative borders deliberately designed to maximize partisan advantage?
Will America have truly representative democracy, where all votes of citizens are approximately equal in value?
The evidence from Wisconsin shows a stark pattern of top Republican leaders and their expensive consultants carefully configuring districts to maximize the number of seats held by Republicans. This practice of “gerrymandering”—the popular term for oddly designed districts drawn purely for partisan advantage—became widespread after 2010 when the Republican State Legislative Committee launched a $30 million REDMAP operation to assist state Republican legislators in designing district boundaries that would preserve their advantage for years to come, regardless of the popular vote.
Reflecting the mentality behind the largely successful REDMAP effort, North Carolina Republican legislator David Lewis openly admitted, “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats. So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”
The undemocratic nature of this gerrymandering is stunningly obvious in Wisconsin. For example, Republicans captured a 53 to 47 percent margin in 2016 legislative races but walked away with a massive 64 to 35 advantage in the state assembly. Even when the Democrats won a majority of votes cast for the legislature in 2012—coincidentally, by the same 53 to 47 percent margin—the Democratic edge somehow was translated into much the same results: just 39 seats for their party with the Republicans capturing 60.
Data offered powerful evidence that the value of Democratic votes was severely discounted by the Republican map drawn in 2011.
Data presented by political scientists on behalf of the Democratic plaintiffs offered powerful evidence that the value of Democratic votes was severely discounted by the Republican map drawn in 2011 under top-secret conditions. One half of the Republican strategy entailed “packing” Democratic strongholds with as many Democratic voters as possible so that they influenced only a limited number of seats. The other half: “cracking” up other Democratic areas and parceling them out to new districts that were otherwise overwhelmingly Republican.
Political scientists working for the plaintiffs convincingly marshalled evidence of this scheme designed to create as many “wasted” Democratic votes that would yield no additional seats for the Dems. At the same time, the strength of the Republican vote would be heavily weighted to exaggerate Republican-held seats. In short, “The new maps efficiently concentrated many Democratic voters in a relatively small number of urban districts and spread out the remainder among many districts in the rest of the state,” as legal expert Emily Bazelon wrote.
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Former Republican State Senator Dale Schultz argues that the redistricting conducted by his own party produced a perversion of basic democracy where electoral outcomes in most districts have been determined before the votes are cast. “When you talk to people about our government, the thing they tell you is, it’s rigged,” Schultz told The New York Times. “The redistricting we have now is the essence of that. Some people’s votes don’t count for much anymore. We have to change that.’’
Change is also on the minds of thirty-three county boards across Wisconsin passing resolutions calling for a non-partisan mapping process, according to Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
But a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court judges must be persuaded that the Wisconsin redistricting is one of the worst cases of gerrymandering in modern political history, as democracy advocates describe it.
“It’s up to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has shown a long-term interest in having an objective yardstick on redistricting issues,” Rothschild told The Progressive. “I think we have a decent shot” for a favorable Supreme Court ruling. That decision now appears likely to be released in June.
A majority of the U.S. Supreme Court judges must be persuaded that the Wisconsin redistricting is one of the worst cases of gerrymandering in modern political history.
However, some of the court’s conservative faction has expressed what seems like contrived confusion about the facts, including Wisconsin’s vast gap between the popular will and the makeup of the state’s Legislature. Chief Justice John Roberts dismissed the description of this gap presented by the Wisconsin plaintiffs as “sociological gobbledygook,” but statistical data has been vital in determining major court rulings, like the Brown v. Board of Education outlawing racial segregation in America’s schools.
“It’s not a question of complicated statistics,” argues Rothschild.
Roberts’s complaint rings eerily of the same “alternative facts” and “fake news” ploys used by the Trump Administration to denounce inconvenient truths, create a fog over clear-cut issues, and thus disorient the public.
But if a majority of justices are willing to look beyond Roberts’s willful ignorance of solid data, the Supreme Court has the chance to strike a blow across the nation to protect an essential pillar of democracy by ruling against districts designed to amplify the voice of the chosen and virtually silence the outsiders.