The Supreme Court has long kept a distance from arguments over gerrymandering, that most American practice of redrawing the lines of legislative districts in order to tip elections toward the party in power. But early next month, the justices will hear a challenge to the 2011 redrawing of Wisconsin’s state legislative map by Republican lawmakers - a demonstration of how increasingly powerful technology allows partisan mapmakers to distort representation with ever-greater precision. Using computer modeling, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature produced districts so unbalanced that, in 2012, Republicans won a supermajority in the state assembly even after losing the popular vote. And the state GOP continued to entrench that hold in 2014 and 2016, even after winning only slim majorities of the vote.
Given that the case, Gill v. Whitford, concerns an egregious abuse of power to the advantage of Republicans, it’s heartening to see officials of that same party condemn Wisconsin’s map. In a series of recently filedlegalbriefs before the Supreme Court, high-profile Republican politicians - including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich - stand shoulder to shoulder with Democrats to report from the “political front lines” on the destructive effects of gerrymandering.
The legal arguments against extreme partisan gerrymandering focus on the practice’s offensiveness to constitutional promises of equal protection and free expression: Voters packed into skewed districts have less of a voice in the political process and are arguably penalized for their party affiliation. And in cases such as Wisconsin’s, technology allows legislators to create maps that essentially immunize the party in power from ever being voted out. The bipartisan briefs make clear how a practice designed to undercut democratic competition further degrades American politics by weakening public faith in government and pushing lawmakers away from compromise, especially in the House of Representatives. This is not an issue of one party’s advantage over another - Democrats have also used gerrymandering against Republicans when convenient, most notably in Maryland - but a matter of bipartisan concern.
In the past, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to intervene against partisan redistricting for fear of becoming entangled in political disputes. But the court should take seriously the testimonials of both Republican and Democratic officials as to gerrymandering’s destructiveness to democracy - and should strike down Wisconsin’s skewed map.
While the question of just where to draw the line between acceptable and unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders may be far from simple in many instances, Wisconsin’s is an extreme case. And with many politicians unwilling to give up the ability to draw their own districts, gerrymandering is uniquely resistant to political solutions. Establishing standards for judicial oversight would help deter overeager lawmakers from hijacking the redistricting process to cement their hold on power.
Gerrymandering has contributed to a “crisis of confidence in our democracy,” reads the brief filed by McCain and his Democratic colleague Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). The judiciary cannot and should not be the sole solution to this crisis, but it has a valuable role to play in reassuring Americans that their votes matter.