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Gerrymandering Heads to Supreme Court

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Michael Wines reports in the NY Times:

The hand-to-hand political combat in House elections on Tuesday in Georgia and last week in Kansas had the feel of the first rounds of an epic battle next year for control of the House of Representatives and the direction of national politics as the Trump presidency unfolds.

But for all the zeal on the ground, none of it may matter as much as a case heading to the Supreme Court, one that could transform political maps from City Hall to Congress — often to Democrats’ benefit.

A bipartisan group of voting rights advocates says the lower house of the Wisconsin Legislature, the State Assembly, was gerrymandered by its Republican majority before the 2012 election — so artfully, in fact, that Democrats won a third fewer Assembly seats than Republicans despite prevailing in the popular vote. In November, in a 2-to-1 ruling, a panel of federal judges agreed.

Now the Wisconsin case is headed to a Supreme Court that has repeatedly said that extreme partisan gerrymanders are unconstitutional, but has never found a way to decide which ones cross the line.

Some legal scholars believe this could be the year that changes that. If that happens, they say, an emphatic ruling against partisan gerrymanders would rank with another redistricting decision: Baker v. Carr, the historic 1962 case that led to the principle of one person, one vote.

“My feeling is that there is increasing concern within the court about the extent of partisan gerrymandering over the last 10 or 15 years,” said Richard H. Pildes, a constitutional law professor at the New York University School of Law. “I do think this is a pivotal moment — a big, big moment.”

Gerrymandering has always been contentious. But the extraordinary success of a Republican strategy to control redistricting by capturing majorities in state legislatures in the 2010 elections has lent urgency to the debate.

Today, at a time of hyperpartisan politics and computer technology that can measure political leanings almost house by house, Republicans control legislatures in 33 states, 25 with Republican governors. They have unfettered command over the boundaries of at least 204 congressional districts — amounting to nearly half the 435-seat House.

In contrast, Democrats’ share of state legislature seats has shrunk to a level not seen since Warren G. Harding was president, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And in recent years, their numbers in the House of Representatives have hovered near levels last seen during the Truman administration.

Partly because of the Voting Rights Act, gerrymanders based on race are flatly illegal, but ones based on partisan intent remain in limbo.

The Wisconsin case heads four legal actions on partisan gerrymanders that the Supreme Court could consider and, perhaps, consolidate. In Maryland, another three-judge panel will hear arguments over whether a Democratic legislature gerrymandered House districts in 2011 to oust a 10-term Republican congressman.

In North Carolina, a June hearing is scheduled in a suit over the unabashedly partisan carving of the state into 10 Republican and three Democratic House seats — this in a state with more registered Democrats than Republicans.

The state representative who drew that map said he had engineered 10 safely Republican seats only “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

Experts disagree over how much gerrymandering has hurt Democrats. One prominent 2013 study mostly blamed geography, not partisanship, because Democrats tend to cluster in cities. But the most recent study, by a Princeton professor, Samuel S. H. Wang, concluded that gerrymanders had cost Democrats as many as 22 House seats in the 2012 election — nearly enough to flip the chamber’s control.

Politicians, on the other hand, appear certain of their electoral potency. Former President Barack Obama and his attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., are spearheading an initiative to undo Republicans’ redistricting triumphs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican and the former governor of California, is leading a movement to outlaw gerrymanders of any political stripe.

Wisconsin Republican leaders say they dominate the Legislature because they have both a better strategy and vision of governing, not because of illegal gerrymandering.

“In a year when people want change, even in a district that favors one party over another, a good candidate with a good message wins,” said Robin Vos, Wisconsin’s Assembly speaker.

But the court said in November that the redistricting clearly aimed to entrench Republican control of the Assembly. The party took 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats in 2012 despite losing the popular vote, and has since added three more.

As in all gerrymanders, Wisconsin’s mapmakers hobbled their opponents in two ways. One was to pack as many Democrats as possible into a few districts, leaving fewer Democrats for potentially competitive ones. In 2012, 21 of the 39 Assembly districts that Democrats won were so lopsided that Republicans did not even field candidates. In two more, Democrats captured at least 94 percent of the vote.

The other method was to fracture unwinnable Democratic districts, salting their Democrats among Republican-majority districts so that races there became closer yet remained out of Democrats’ reach. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 April 2017 at 10:59 am

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