Last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Maryland and North Carolina’s gerrymandered district maps. More precisely, it ruled that it did not have the ability to pass judgment on whether or not a map is excessively gerrymandered along partisan lines.
Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged in the court’s opinion that the maps were “blatant examples of partisanship,” but the 5-4 conservative majority fell short of doing anything about it. Rather, the Court has retreated from what it considers the “political question” of drawing districts, throwing up its hands and claiming it can’t enforce a “manageable standard” of partisan gerrymandering. Never mind that the judiciary exists precisely to resolve issues when legislatures are compromised as an avenue of remedy, or that the Court has seen fit to enforce prohibitions on racial gerrymandering.
While there may be legitimate questions about whether the maps at issue are allowed by the equal protection clause of the constitution, partisan gerrymandering is unquestionably antithetical to the spirit of democracy. By drawing district lines just right, the ruling party can ensure that even if the majority of voters vote one way, the majority of districts will go the way they want, usually arranging for a few districts to have close to one hundred percent minority voters, and split up most of the minority voters across many other districts, such that they do not have enough to win in any one of them.
The obvious problem is that of unearned majorities ruling legislatures, like in Wisconsin where 54% of the electorate voted Democrat for state assembly in 2018, yet Republicans ended up with 63 of 99 districts. There is also the less-obvious problem of uncompetitive elections, which breed complacency. Elected officials in safe seats have a lot less reason to respond to the needs of their constituents, regardless of party, than those who regularly face serious opponents from another party.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked the right question in a similar 2017 case (in which the Court also declined to rule on the constitutionality of a state’s maps, Wisconsin in that case). Between volleys of legalistic hair-splitting, she asked the Republican State Senate’s attorney, “Could you tell me what the value is to democracy from political gerrymandering? How does that help our system of government?”
The Republican defense for gerrymandered district maps has generally been, “it’s not about race, it’s about political advantage!” But their inability to articulate an affirmative rationale for gerrymandering is an admission of how totally uncommitted they are to democracy. Republicans see the right to draw districts as part of the spoils of political victory rather than as a duty they have to voters.
By resorting to legalistic minutiae in the courtroom to defend the practice, Republicans are essentially admitting that there is no publicly defensible justification for these gerrymandered districts. Republicans are under no illusions that they can win over the public on the merits of their ideas, so instead of changing those ideas they change district boundaries.
This decision is easily lost within the GOP’s history of contempt for democracy. Before it was outlawed, Republicans routinely gerrymandered based on race. They have instituted voter ID requirements, then shut down facilities where voters of color could procure an ID in states like Alabama. Mitch McConnell famously refused to advance President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merick Garland because it was an “election year.” More recently, he admitted he would fill a similar vacancy in 2020, undermining that already tenuous justification and laying bare his party’s power-at-all-costs mentality. Indeed, four of the five Justices in the majority on this case were appointed by Republican presidents who lost the popular vote.
Voters should choose their politicians, not the other way around. Republicans see political power not as a platform from which to serve the American people, but rather as another tool to accumulate and hold onto wealth by rigging the system. Fortunately, there are a few ways that voters can take that power back; anti-gerrymandering lawsuits continue at the state level and several states have their districts drawn by nonpartisan citizens commissions.
With this decision, the Court rubber stamps a rigged system that shuts everyday Americans out of meaningful political power. Even most wealthy business people and investors understand that in the long run, living in a country with lots of people having no political power is not in their long term best interests. We strongly oppose the Supreme Court’s abdication of responsibility and look forward to a day when the way we choose our representatives aligns with the spirit of democracy.