More Americans are suing over gerrymandered state maps – but the Supreme Court is not likely to step in

Partisan gerrymandering is when a congressional or state legislative district map is drawn in a way the severely lessens the ability of one party, the minority party, to compete for seats in an election.

The public is more aware of partisan gerrymandering than ever – and less supportive of it.

Reform is happening. In 2018, five states reformed their redistricting processes to reduce partisan gerrymandering. There is the potential for redistricting reform in another seven states before the 2021 redistricting process begins.

A handful of states may even need to redraw their congressional district maps for 2020, if the U.S. Supreme Court upholds the lower courts’ decisions that certain redistricting processes produced extreme partisan gerrymanders.

As a scholar of state politics, I believe that the public should understand how state governments influence citizens’ representation in Congress through redistricting and other voting and election laws.

The Supreme Court decision due in June will determine exactly how much autonomy states have to make the rules for voting and elections.

Redistricting practices

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Baker v. Carr in 1962 that congressional districts must be drawn to ensure that each citizen receives equal representation in Congress and in state legislatures.

Congressional and state legislative district lines are redrawn every ten years to reflect population changes documented by the U.S. Census. This is referred to as the decennial redistricting cycle.

The political party that controls the redistricting cycle in each state will use the process to draw district maps that favor them in elections. Partisan gerrymandering happens when that political party creates a map that makes it virtually impossible for the other party to win in most districts.

Often, this practice results in odd shaped districts that split cities and counties between districts. This can be confusing for a voter, as nearby friends and neighbors may live in a different district and have a different representative.

Current redistricting practices range from completely partisan processes controlled by state legislatures, as is the case in most states, to completely nonpartisan processes controlled by independent commissions.

David Niven, a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati holds a map demonstrating a gerrymandered Ohio district. AP Photo/John Minchillo

Change is happening

In Arizona, California and Michigan, citizens play a significant role in deciding the final legislative district maps.

Citizens in more states are also considering changes to their processes aimed at making the process less political.

These changes range from taking redistricting out of the hands of state legislatures and into independent commissions to requiring support of both the Democratic and Republican legislators to adopt new maps. The goal is a redistricting process that best reflects the political views and values of citizens, which leads to better representation.

Not all states are moving towards reform on their own.

Citizens and groups like the League of Women Voters have challenged partisan gerrymandered maps in Wisconsin, Maryland, North Carolina, Michigan and Ohio.

In all five cases, panels of federal judges ruled that the current congressional maps were extreme partisan gerrymanders and unconstitutional under the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clauses. They ordered that the maps must be redrawn.