Drawing maps of legislative and congressional districts for partisan advantage – commonly called “gerrymandering” – is ethically wrong, and the U.S. Supreme Court may soon decide whether it’s also a constitutional violation.
The case, Gill v. Whitford, involves Wisconsin, where the Republican legislative majority drew new districts that, in effect, guaranteed its dominance.
It is just one example of a years-long – and very successful – drive by conservative organizations to achieve control of enough state legislatures to affect control of Congress through redrawing districts after every decennial census.
When they controlled all the levers in 1981, Democrats gleefully grabbed every district they could. The late Congressman Phil Burton drew congressional maps so partisan and convoluted that he described them as “my contribution to modern art.”
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Democrats complain that the state-by-state gerrymanders of legislative districts, and through them the partisan redrawing of congressional districts, unconstitutionally thwart the ability of voters to decide which party and candidates they prefer.
“You are the only institution in the United States that can solve this problem,” Democratic lawyer Paul Smith told the Supreme Court during oral arguments last week.
Whether the court will insert itself into this partisan duel is uncertain.
The court’s liberal minority is eager to act. “What’s really behind all of this?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked, answering herself: “The precious right to vote.”
However, Chief Justice John Roberts expressed concern about having courts decide, in effect, which party will emerge victorious.
Like many controversial cases, the outcome likely rests on the shoulders of the court’s swing vote, Sacramento's Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Regardless of how the court rules, however, it’s amusing to see Democrats, all the way up to former President Barack Obama, expressing outrage about gerrymandering. Republicans are merely doing what Democrats did for many decades, until the GOP figured out how to turn the tables.
California is virtually a case study in the politics of gerrymandering.
When they controlled all the levers in 1981 during Jerry Brown’s first governorship, Democrats gleefully grabbed every legislative and congressional district they could.
The late Congressman Phil Burton drew congressional maps so partisan and convoluted that he described them as “my contribution to modern art.”
After the 1970 and 1990 censuses, Republican Govs. Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson refused to sign the Democrats’ gerrymanders and threw the issue to the state Supreme Court, which drew the maps itself.
Democrats once again controlled the Legislature and the governorship after the 2000 census. But Republicans cleverly threatened intervention by the U.S. Justice Department, forcing Democrats to accede to a bipartisan gerrymander that protected the status quo.
Those maps, however, were as outrageously distorted as any other gerrymander. That sparked a drive, financed by wealthy Stanford University scientist Charles Munger, Jr., and backed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was then governor, to remove redistricting from the Legislature and give it instead to an independent commission.
Tellingly, Democratic leaders such as Barbara Boxer, then a U.S. senator, and Democratic congressional leader Nancy Pelosi opposed Proposition 11 in 2008. Other Democrats sponsored a rival measure, Proposition 27, in 2010 that would have repealed the independent commission altogether.
Proposition 27 failed, and the commission did its work after the 2010 census. Its maps may not be perfect, and Republicans didn’t like their effect, but they are paragons of fairness compared to past gerrymanders.
Democrats, having been burned by the Republican drive to take over legislatures and Congress, are now enamored of having independent commissions draw districts.
As the worm turns.
Dan Walters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more of his columns, go to calmatters.org/commentary. CALmatters is a public-interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.