Partisan gerrymandering goes to Washington
by Tom Sullivan
U.S. Supreme Court photo by Joe Ravi via Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA 3.0.
The architects of North Carolina's surgically precise congressional districts argue in The Atlantic that giving disproportional advantage to Republican voters was the point.
“I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats,” argued Republican state Rep. David Lewis, one of the architects of the gerrymandered maps. Politics is not illegal. Go pound sand.
Cases that may determine whether that will remain legal go before the U.S. Supreme Court this morning.
Governors Roy Cooper of North Carolina, a Democrat, and Larry Hogan, Republican of Maryland, argue in the Washington Post it is time to end partisan gerrymandering:
The Supreme Court will soon hear arguments over whether politicians can be trusted to draw up their own districts.Common Cause and the League of Women Voters argue in the North Carolina case (Rucho v. Common Cause) that citizens' First Amendment rights are infringed when politicians draw districts to predetermine an election's outcome. The second case, Lamone v. Benisek, concerns Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, where Democrats admit they drew the district to make it a tougher hold for the Republican incumbent. While complementary, the Raleigh News and Observer suggests the North Carolina case involves broader issues. (Full disclosure: Two of the plaintiffs in Rucho v. Common Cause are personal friends.)
Take it from us: They can’t.
We are governors from different parties with different views on a number of issues. But on this we agree: Elections should be decided by the voters. Under the current system, politicians devise maps that make some votes count more than others. They rig the system with impunity.
The two cases hold the potential to set the course of American politics for generations. A decision to rein in partisan gerrymanders could reshape House maps in a number of states, largely but not exclusively to the benefit of Democrats. A decision not to rein in the mapmakers would give both political parties carte blanche to entrench themselves and hogtie their opponents when state legislatures draw the next decade’s House districts in 2021.The legal battles over these districts have dragged on for nearly a decade and through a second Republican map that still would not pass legal review. In Times interviews with candidates drawn into impossible districts, the impacts on the ground are less academic.
The justices have dodged the issue of gerrymandering for decades, gridlocked over whether it is even possible to distinguish acceptably partisan maps from unconstitutional ones.
In last year's presidential primary, I voted in North Carolina's 10th Congressional District. By November, I was in the 11th Congressional District. Again. That is where I had voted until the Republicans' first 2011 redistricting maps split the city in two.The Times story has another tale of voter impact:
On the east side of Greensboro, the boundary separating North Carolina’s 6th and 13th congressional districts takes an abrupt detour. The line yanks hard to the west until it reaches Laurel Street, turns northward, and disappears into the brown-brick campus of North Carolina A&T State University, where it neatly bisects the nation’s largest historically black college.North Carolina's state House and county commission districts in this county share the same maps. Those legislative districts are also under review by the state's Supreme Court. Students at a local college were targeted directly by the GOP's efforts to sequester as many of the county's Democrats as possible in the county's city district. With one, small, amoeba-like addition. At a college miles east of the city, the result was chaos:
Five dormitories lie in the 6th district; seven in the 13th. All are in unassailably Republican territory, as the line splits both the university and the city’s mostly Democratic 285,000 residents between two conservative rural bastions.
Nikolaus Knight, a senior and political science major, was assigned to a new dormitory after his freshman year — and had to re-register to vote as a result. “We had the power as a student body to sway an election,” he said. “And our voice as a campus was stripped away when we were cut in half.”
Democrats here in 2012 won a county commission seat by 18 votes. There was a recount and a court case, of course. That surgically precise gerrymandering you've heard of? It split a college campus down the middle, wreaking havoc with students voting. Many had to vote provisionally until the Board could sort out on which side of the district line they slept at night.
Lewis' mapmakers successfully captured the college's post office address in the designated liberal district, but left half the dormitories in what was meant to be the Republican safe zone on the west side of the road. That mistake cost them.
Cooper and Hogan argue such partisan mischief has to end:
As the court searches for a solution to end gerrymandering, voters all over the country are increasingly outraged by the practice, and they’re doing something about it. Just last year, voters in Colorado, Michigan, Ohio and Utah passed grass-roots measures that will put their redistricting processes in the hands of nonpartisan commissions. California, the gold standard in statewide independent citizen redistricting, is considering a bill to require its large municipalities to use commissions. More states and cities will follow this example.It remains to be seen if it will come this year. The court's decision is expected in May or June.
Leaders in both parties would be wise to listen to and work with the people they represent to strengthen our democracy. Both of us support reform efforts in our states that would take a nonpartisan approach to redistricting. Eventually, reform will come — and it must.