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The Supreme Court takes on gerrymandering: 6 essential reads

Wisconsin from overhead. sarunas_b/flickr, CC BY-SA

The Supreme Court takes on gerrymandering: 6 essential reads

Editor’s note: The following is roundup of archival stories.

On June 19, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear Gill v. Whitford, a case on partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin.

This controversial practice – where states are carved up into oddly shaped electoral districts favoring one political party over another – has already ignited debates in a number of states, including North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The Supreme Court’s decision may provide some long-awaited guidance on whether gerrymandering is constitutional. To better understand what this news means, we turned to stories in our archive.

What is gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering is far from a new problem, explains Michel Balinski at École Polytechnique – Université Paris-Saclay, nor will this be the first time that the Supreme Court has considered it:

Practiced as a political art form for some two centuries, gerrymandering is now an exact science. Computer programs using vast data banks describing sociological, ethnic, economic, religious and political characteristics of the electorate determine districts – often of incredibly weird contours – that favor the party that drew the maps.

Ohio congressional districts. Ohio Secretary of State

For an example of those weird contours, take a look at Ohio’s ninth district, nicknamed “the snake on the lake” for the way it stretches from Toledo to Cleveland.

“The representation of communities is made a mockery by maps that either splinter cities and counties or overwhelm them with voters ‘tacked’ into the district from distant rural areas,” writes Richard Gunther at The Ohio State University.

Weaker elections

Americans often seem proud of their democracy, notes Pippa Norris at Harvard University, but experts rank U.S. elections among the worst in all Western democracies. According to one analysis, the U.S. scores only 62 on a 100-point assessment of election integrity.

There are many issues with our electoral process – including problems with campaign finance and voter registration – but gerrymandering stands out as the worst, writes Norris:

[A] large part of the blame can be laid at the door of the degree of decentralization and partisanship in American electoral administration. Key decisions about the rules of the game are left to local and state officials with a major stake in the outcome. For example, gerrymandering arises from leaving the processes of redistricting in the hands of state politicians, rather than more impartial judicial bodies.

Thanks to gerrymandering, Democrats likely won’t win back the House in 2018 or 2020, predict experts at Strathclyde University, University of Richmond, University of California, Irvine and California Polytechnic State University. They argue that it’s difficult for today’s politicians to claim that gerrymandered districts occurred by accident:

If a state government could have drawn unbiased districts, but chose to draw to biased districts instead, then it has engaged in deliberate gerrymandering. It cannot claim that it did not realize what it was doing – modern districting software has allowed enough people to see the partisan consequences.

In search of solutions

Federal law dictates that congressional districts “distribute population evenly, be connected and be ‘compact,’” explains Kevin Knudson at the University of Florida.

Scholars have proposed a handful of ideas of how to redraw congressional districts more fairly. States might consider changing how votes are tabulated or appointing an independent commission to redraw the lines. Or, they could turn to new mathematical techniques and run simulations in search of the best map.

Some voters might wonder why all the bother, says Knudson:

One approach is to do nothing and leave the system as it is, accepting the current situation as part of the natural ebb and flow of the political process. But when one political party receives a majority of votes nationally yet does not have control of the House of Representatives – as occurred in the 2012 election – one begins to wonder if the system needs some tweaks.

Not just politics

Gerrymandering is often discussed in the realm of politics. But Derek W. Black at the University of South Carolina explores a case in Alabama where school districts have been redrawn to create racially segregated schools. He notes that this seems to be an unfortunate pattern across the country:

In many areas, this racial isolation has occurred gradually over time, and is often written off as the result of demographic shifts and private preferences that are beyond a school district’s control.

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