Thanks to the North Carolina case, partisan gerrymandering’s day of reckoning may soon be upon us

Gerrymandering was already shaping up to be an important issue this year, with huge implications for American democracy. But after the ruling this week on the North Carolina congressional map, the stakes have been raised still higher.

For the first time, a federal panel of judges ruled that a state’s map of its congressional districts was unconstitutional. The North Carolina map didn’t just give an advantage to Republicans – it manifested “invidious partisan intent.” The panel directed the state to draw the districts again by Jan. 24.

Politicians are always looking for partisan advantages, and the constitutional mandate to redraw district boundaries every 10 years provides an irresistible opportunity. When that mandate falls to a state legislature that is controlled by one party, well, you can imagine what those boundaries look like.

But sometimes parties go too far. They create maps that entrench that party in power, making it virtually impossible for the opposition to compete. When that happens, voters are effectively disenfranchised, and it becomes a constitutional question.

As the managing director of an institute dedicated to defending democracy, the North Carolina ruling leaves me hopeful that after this term of the Supreme Court, American elections might better reflect the will of the people.

Partisan vs. racial gerrymandering

The Supreme Court has acknowledged that partisan gerrymandering can be so egregious as to be “unlawful.” But they have punted on the question of how far is too far.

The court has repeatedly decided questions regarding racial gerrymandering – for example, when states “pack” minorities into a district to mitigate their political power. As a matter of fact, this is the second time the North Carolina map has been rejected. The first time was for racial gerrymandering.

Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District is often cited as an example of gerrymandering. Wikipedia
But the court says it doesn’t have a “workable standard” to decide when partisan gerrymandering becomes unconstitutional. And without that, they fear that every decennial they will get 50 claims from every state’s aggrieved minority party.

This distinction between partisan and racial gerrymandering has always been slippery at best. Minorities vote overwhelmingly Democratic. But the distinction – and the mandate for minority representation in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – gave partisans a useful justification for their actions. It also gave the courts a way to dodge this very thorny question. But it looks like this convenient distinction is crumbling before our eyes.

To the Supreme Court

Two cases before the Supreme Court this term directly confront partisan gerrymandering. As a result, continued punting looks very unlikely.