The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week to, in effect, throw up its hands and say federal judges can’t police the gerrymandering of election districts represents a frustrating abdication of federal authority to oversee the validity of an election process, thus allowing politicians to continue to potentially rig the game in their favor.
The decision also makes it all the more important that states find ways to deal with this unfortunate practice, which is nearly as old as the republic itself.
Gerrymandering refers to the ability of a political party in power in a given state to draw election boundaries in such a way that it can manufacture majorities that can tip the scales in favor of that party. This practice is named after Elbridge Gerry, a former U.S. vice president who, while governor of Massachusetts in 1812, redrew state senate districts in such a way as to favor his Democratic-Republican party. One district in Boston was so contorted that it was said to resemble a salamander. Since that time, political parties that have the power have sometimes resorted to this tactic to create favorable playing fields for their candidates. And through the decades, it has created some surreal district boundaries.
The current Supreme Court reached its 5-4 decision in the case of Rucho v. Common Cause and involved redistricting cases in Maryland (where Democrats hold political power) and North Carolina (where Republicans control the reins).
The court’s decision is unfortunate not only because it refuses to address this time-honored malpractice but also because it might encourage even more states to pursue this tactic.
Frankly, dictating the rules of an election process should not be a perk of political power. The boundaries that make up an election district should be drawn up by nonpartisan hands to ensure that all people are fairly heard, not distorted and diluted by craven political designs.
Since this court is unwilling to act, it is more important than ever for the states to ensure that this practice is addressed. Such efforts range from legislative amendments to public initiatives.
South Dakota has tried — and failed — to create nonpartisan/bipartisan commissions that would oversee the drawing of legislative districts. (Nebraska is mulling a ballot measure for next year.) Some ideas include setting up a board that does not include elected officials or includes an equal number of representatives from the two main political parties. One argument against the approach that excludes lawmakers is that it would mean that individuals not elected by the people would be making these decisions. But that’s precisely the point, and the process would have a better chance for fairness than it would if done by a board that IS made up of elected individuals who, by being politicians, would have skin in that game.
Perhaps it’s only proper that this ball needs to be moved forward by the voters themselves. It’s the integrity of their democracy that’s at stake, and if the federal courts are handcuffed from dealing with this skulduggery, it’s time for the people to make it happen.