Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” Except for diehard Republicans, that SCOTUS ruling is widely seen as a questionable and damaging ruling for a (small “d”) democratic society. But what’s wrong with gerrymandering?
A Long-used Partisan Practice
As you know, partisan gerrymandering is the practice of politicians manipulating voting district boundaries to favor one political party over another. As Doug Criss explains in this helpful 6/27 article,
In most states, state legislators and the governor control the once-a-decade line-drawing process. So what happens when one party controls the state House, the state Senate and the governor's mansion? The party usually does everything in its power to draw the lines in a way that favors them and puts their political opponents at a disadvantage.
This practice has a long history. In fact, it goes back to 1810 when Elbridge Gerry was governor of the great state of Massachusetts. A salamander-shaped district was drawn in the northern part of the state, and that helped Gerry’s colleagues hold on to power in the state legislature.
So, Gov. Gerry’s name and the salamander-shaped district were mashed together, and politicians have been practicing gerrymandering, by that name, ever since.
The following simple chart shows how it is possible to manipulate elections by the way the lines are drawn:
A Recently-used Partisan Practice
Districts for electing U.S. Representatives are based upon the latest census information, and the partisan practice of gerrymandering has been used more widely and more precisely since the 2010 election.
That sordid story is told in the provocative book Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, by David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon.com.
In the Introduction, Daley writes,
This is the story of the audacious Republican plan . . . to create supermajorities for conservative policies in otherwise blue and purple states. This is the story of the actual redrawing of the American political map and of our democracy itself. It’s the story of how Republicans turned a looming demographic disaster into legislative majorities so unbreakable, so impregnable, that none of the outcomes are in doubt until after the 2020 census (pp. xii-xiii).
Daley goes on to declare, “The Democratic majority was ratfucked.” He explains: “In politics, a ‘ratfuck’ is a dirty deed done dirt cheap” (p. xiii). (It was a term used in All the President’s Men, the story of the Watergate scandal.)
After the election of Obama in 2008, the Republicans used gerrymandering to their great advantage following the 2010 census. That was masterminded by Chris Jankowski, who designed REDMAP (the Redistricting Majority Project, explained here.)
A Harmfully-used Partisan Practice
There is no question but that gerrymandering has been used by both political parties. There is also no question but that gerrymandering is not a good thing. Why? Mainly because it is “a body blow to our democracy,” as Dahlia Lithwick put it in a June 27 Slate.com article.
Even Chief Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion admitted that gerrymandering “leads to results that reasonably seem unjust” and that it is “incompatible with democratic principles.”
Nevertheless, he and the four other conservative justices decided that the federal courts are just not able to deal with the matter.
The other four justices--the three women justices and Justice Stephen G. Breyer--strongly disagreed, and the minority opinion was forcefully stated by Justice Elena Kagan.
Justice Kagan charged, “The gerrymanders here — and others like them — violated the constitutional rights of many hundreds of thousands of American citizens.”
Exactly—and that’s one major reason why gerrymandering is wrong.