Last week the U.S. Supreme Court began its look into the widespread practice of gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is the manipulation of political boundaries (for the state legislature, for example) to favor one party.
The practice is now widespread and is designed to pack as many supportive voters together in one district, while diluting the political power of voters who are enrolled in a different political party. In this way, political party map makers choose their voters, instead of voters choosing their elected officials.
New district lines are drawn at least every ten years in response to population changes identified in the U.S. Census. The changes in the population require a reapportionment of members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The House has 435 members and they must be redistributed in districts of exactly the same populations.
In addition, state lawmakers must redesign political boundaries within the state for their legislative bodies to reflect population changes, known as redistricting.
The next Census is scheduled for 2020 and new district lines in New York must be in place for the 2022 elections.
The case before the Court is one related to the district maps of the Wisconsin Assembly. Republicans took full control of Wisconsin's government in the 2010 elections and used their power to draw maps that greatly favor them. The plaintiffs argue that the districts were drawn to be so heavily Republican that they violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters. A three-judge appellate federal court panel agreed with the plaintiffs and now the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether the lower court got the ruling right.
Wisconsin is a state in which support for the major political parties are often close. In 2012 — a year when Democratic President Barack Obama easily won Wisconsin — Democrats received nearly 52% of the vote in Assembly races, yet took just 39 of the chamber’s 99 seats (40%).
In last year's election, Republican Donald Trump squeaked out a win over Democrat Hillary Clinton, but the Republicans expanded their control of the Wisconsin Assembly by taking 64 of the 99 seats.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case and the schism among the judges was clear. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned "If you can stack a legislature in this way, what incentive is there for a voter to exercise his vote? Whether it's a Democratic district or a Republican district, the result — using this map, the result is preordained in most of the districts."
Chief Justice John Roberts argued that it is a state responsibility and that most legislatures have been the ones to determine how legislative lines are drawn. The Court’s involvement would dramatically change things, he said.
“The whole point is you’re taking these issues away from democracy and you're throwing them into the courts." If the plaintiffs succeed, the Supreme Court will have to decide whether to redraw maps that favored one political party over the other. It’s likely, Roberts warned, that the public will view the court's rulings as partisan.
Perhaps the most incisive question came from Justice Sonia Sotomayor who asked the Wisconsin state attorneys “Could you tell me what the value is to democracy from political gerrymandering? How does that help our system of government?”
How the Court rules could also have a broad national impact. If Wisconsin's maps are thrown out, states will have to follow new rules when they draw congressional and legislative districts, limiting their abilities to give edges to either party.
Plaintiffs proposed a new test to determine whether maps were unfairly one-sided. It counts “wasted votes” — that is, any votes beyond those needed to elect a candidate — to determine the “efficiency gap” of a map. Their plan essentially argues that districts should have closer party enrollments to make them more reflective of the population and more competitive.
New York’s legislative maps were incredibly rigged after the last redistricting – in ways to help Republicans keep control of the Senate despite shrinking party enrollment and further solidify Democratic control of the Assembly. The Court’s decision could change all of that.
Of course, there is no way to know now how the Court will rule. All eyes are on Justice Kennedy who may well be the deciding vote. But if changes occur, it could drastically impact elections across America and may finally end New York’s system of rigged elections.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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