Credit the Boston Gazette for coming up with the colorful term “gerrymander” more than two centuries ago. The newspaper coined the word after Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812 approved a proposal to redraw the state’s legislative districts to his party’s advantage — one of the districts resembled a salamander.
Political concerns and the determination of legislative or congressional boundaries are as intertwined as a crown of thorns, of course. Both Republicans and Democrats have long sought to gain an edge through the process. In recent years, however — with the advance of Big Data and sophisticated software programs — several observers now fret that “gerrymandering” threatens the future of democracy.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will wade into the issue, hearing an appeal to a lower court decision that Wisconsin Republicans in 2010 improperly reconfigured the state’s districts to weaken the power of Democratic voters. Other legal challenges are currently pending to lines drawn by Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland.
A handful of states have resorted to “independent” commissions to draw boundaries, but that only camouflages the inherent politics. Most states, including Nevada, empower state lawmakers with the task. The Supreme Court has heard a handful of cases on the issue, ruling in 1986 that the process could be challenged in court. That has prompted a slew of litigation in the past 30 years, but resulted in no clear guidance — and, at times, conflicting instruction.
A cynic might suggest that the increasing uproar over gerrymandering is a smokescreen Democrats have erected to deflect attention from the fact that they have been losing local elections at an unprecedented rate. During the Obama years, the party lost nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures. The GOP now runs 67 of 98 partisan legislative chambers, The Hill reports.
With redistricting again on the horizon following the 2020 elections, perhaps progressives favor judicial intervention over the heavy lifting of convincing grasroots voters to embrace their leftist agenda. It has to be the corrupt district boundaries rather than the message, right?
Yes, gerrymandering in the extreme can indeed create less competitive districts and discourage voter participation. Those drawing the boundaries, whether politicians or citizen committees, should be reluctant to break apart neighborhoods and communities and avoid creating deformed districts to cluster particular voters.
But the notion that judicial intervention represents a panacea is folly. Voters with similar characteristics don’t always behave as a monolithic bloc whose political preferences can be cataloged based on income, party, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. In addition, demographic patterns themselves may be responsible for diluting the electoral influence of a particular group.
The Constitution, at least, offers a nominal check on gerrymandering chicanery by demanding that states redraw congressional boundaries every 10 years.
In 1986, Justice Antonin Scalia argued that absent blatant discrimination there was little the court could do in redistricting controversies because “no judicially discernible and manageable standards for adjudicating political gerrymandering claims have emerged.” It remains unlikely that the court will find one in the Wisconsin case.