On October 3, the second day of the new term, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case that likely poses the most momentous question on its docket: Should it, for the first time in history, strike down a state’s electoral map on the grounds of partisan gerrymandering?
Gerrymandering — a term coined in 1813 to describe a practice that goes back to Colonial times —refers to the intentional drawing of electoral district boundaries in ways that stack the deck in favor of one party’s candidates, entrenching that party’s control for multiple elections to come, even if the party loses majority support in the interim. In the upcoming case, Gill v. Whitford, the alleged gerrymanderers are the Republicans, and the body is the Wisconsin State Assembly, where, in 2012, GOP candidates won a supermajority of seats while winning fewer than half the total votes.
Because state legislatures also draw electoral districts for the U.S. House of Representatives, gerrymandering impacts that body too. After the same round of redistrictings that led to the Gill lawsuit, the Republican Party won a 33-seat majority in the 2012 races, even though Democratic candidates outpolled Republicans by more than one million votes. The bias embedded in those redistrictings still overshadows the upcoming 2018 midterms. In addition, the caustic hyperpartisanship that characterizes national politics is at least in part a result of gerrymandering, which creates a plethora of safe seats for incumbents of both parties. Those representatives have disincentives to work across the aisle, lest the more extreme factions of their own party field a candidate to challenge them in the primaries — increasingly the only remaining contested elections.
With the upcoming 2020 census — the event that will trigger the next round of electoral map redrawing — the stakes of the case could not be higher.
“it’s critical that the court act now,” says Michael Li, a senior attorney with the Brennan Center for…