Gerrymandering has become a glaring enough problem — “a cancer on our democracy,” as one judge recently put it — to be recognized by Republicans and Democrats, state and federal courts, and voters in an array of states led by California. A striking exception to this growing sense of urgency is the U.S. Supreme Court.
Considering two partisan gerrymandering cases this week, one of them back for a second tour, the court’s conservative justices searched for reasons to do what they have always done about it, which is nothing.
Gerrymandering, the practice of maximizing political power through creative cartography, has been around long enough that the term was inspired by a district drawn in 1812. Technology and shamelessness have elevated the dark art to extremes typified by the cases before the court.
One of the political maps at issue sliced and diced North Carolina to the extent that one college campus was split between two congressional districts. In a state where Republicans won just over 50 percent of the congressional vote last fall, GOP lawmakers contrived a map that gave them a 10-3 advantage in the delegation. Why? Because, as one legislator put it, they couldn’t figure out how to make it 11-2.
The other gerrymander at issue was by Maryland Democrats, who redrew a chiefly rural Republican district to encompass far-flung suburbs that favor them. The result was to increase Democratic dominance of the state’s congressional delegation to 7-1. Maryland is a blue state, but it’s not that blue.
While Republicans have been more effective at gerrymandering in recent decades, the cases at hand show this isn’t a partisan issue. Any party in power can distort districts to disadvantage opponents and marginalize voters.
The Democratic-appointed Supreme Court justices appear more inclined to address the problem, but California’s pioneering independent redistricting commission was spearheaded by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who told reporters in Washington this week that he remains keen to “terminate” gerrymandering. His campaign gained momentum last fall, when voters in five states, including Republican strongholds Utah and Missouri, adopted redistricting reforms.
Politicians still draw the lines in most states, however, and many of them lack the sort of initiative process that allowed voters to reform redistricting in California and elsewhere. The court’s guidance, or lack thereof, is more crucial than some justices admit.
View Original Publication: San Francisco Chronicle