Monday morning, the Supreme Court announced it will hear a case on gerrymandering involving Republicans in Wisconsin. It will be the most important such case in over ten years. Gerrymandering, for the uninitiated, is the practice of redrawing districts — a right held by the party in power — in such a way that it benefits the majority in elections.
There are different ways to accomplish the desired effect: “Packing” draws districts in order to cram as many voters of a particular political bent into single districts, to mitigate their effect on districts fielding candidates from the opposite party. “Cracking” splits powerful voting districts apart, to dilute the effects of partisan majorities in those districts. Other tactics include forcing incumbents from the same party to oppose each other in a primary, leaving the loser’s district vulnerable, and moving large cities to a different district, leaving candidates who represent urban areas with little but rural voters to court.
The procedure is used — surprise! — mostly by Republicans. In a notable case in Texas, a federal court found that Republicans there had used gerrymandering tactics specifically to discriminate against minorities and outright invalidated the new districts. This would be the preferred outcome in the case the Supreme Court has just agreed to hear.
At issue in the Wisconsin case is the fact that while courts have agreed gerrymandering unfairly benefits the party in power, there is still no legal consensus on how much redistricting is “too much.” CNN’s Supreme Court analyst Steve Vladeck explains:
Although a majority of the court has suggested that states can violate the Constitution if they draw legislative districts primarily to benefit one political party, the justices have never been able to identify the specific point at which states cross the constitutional line. In this case, a lower court held that Wisconsin had indeed crossed that line. If the [Supreme Court] justices agree, it would be the first time the court has articulated a constitutional rule in this context, which could — and likely would — have enormous ramifications nationwide.”
So far, every case of gerrymandering that has made it to courts in recent memory has been decided in favor of undoing the clearly partisan decisions and making legislators draw districts that make sense according to population, rather than political demographics. This SCOTUS decision could have the kind of far-reaching effects we saw with the Citizens United decision if it should go in favor of allowing gerrymandering to continue.
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