In an announcement that is sending shockwaves through Republican power centers, the Supreme Court says it will take up a gerrymandering case that could upend one of their key strategies to winning legislative seats.
A federal court ruled in 2011 that Wisconsin districts were illegally drawn along partisan lines, helping Republicans win 60% of legislative seats despite garnering just 48.6% of votes. Today, the Court agreed to hear the appeal in the upcoming session, which NPR reports, opens the door for the Court to “formally determine a metric on what constitutes unlawful gerrymandering.”
While racially motivated redistricting is unconstitutional, gerrymandering for political gain is currently permitted due to a 2004 decision that left the door open to revisit the issue should “workable standards” be developed in the future. The plaintiffs in the case of Gill v. Whitford argue that they have identified the necessary standards
The proposed metric focuses on “wasted votes.” In a wasted votes situation, a Democrat in a strangely drawn district would win in a landslide, while those in surrounding districts suffer narrow defeats. The plaintiffs contend that such a scenario points to an intent to waste Democrats’ votes in a district they would win without them, preventing equal representation.
The timing of the 2010 tea party insurgency presented an opportunity for Republicans to rig district lines in their favor because they controlled the majority of state legislatures immediately following a census and therefore determined redistricting. Numerous Republican redistricting plans have been overturned for their racist motives, but political gerrymandering has allowed Republicans to maintain control of both state legislatures and the U.S. House, where in 2012, Republicans won a 49-seat majority despite losing to Democrats in the nationwide count by more than 1.2 million votes.
Republicans designed the districts using methods called “cracking and packing.” Cracking dilutes Democratic Party support by splitting the votes among neighboring districts where it can have no effect, and packing concentrates Democrats into a single district, which will be sacrificed by the Republicans in order to win multiple seats surrounding it.
After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) succeeded in stealing President Obama’s Supreme Court pick and delivered President Trump the opportunity to seat right wing ideologue Justice Neil Gorsuch, many progressives get squeamish at the thought of important issues decided by this Court. Here, however, Democrats have reason for hope.
In the 2004 decision allowing partisan gerrymandering, it was Justice Anthony Kennedy who left the door open to further consideration. Should the “wasted vote” metric meet his approval, we could see him break with his more conservative colleagues as he has been occasionally wont to do. Chief Justice Roberts, who surprised observers by joining current Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan to uphold Obamacare in 2012, arrived on the Court in 2005 and could be a wildcard in the case.
While the decision of the Supreme Court decision is very much up-in-the-air, this at the very least opens up the potential to make our elections significantly more just. After all, our republic is intended to be a nation in which the voters determine our elected officials, and for decades, Republicans have contrived to build a system whereby Republican politicians choose the voters.
In their next session, the Supreme Court has the chance to correct this tremendous injustice and in so doing, release Republicans’ devious vice grip on power.