Rigging election boundaries: When does it go too far?

The Supreme Court Wednesday takes up a case on political gerrymandering that could affect districts across the US.

This is what the cutting edge of American democracy has come down to: a "supine seahorse" and an "upside-down Chinese dragon."

They are descriptions of the approximate shape of congressional voting districts drawn in Pennsylvania to maximize the political clout of the Republican Party.

Such attempts by statehouse politicians to rig election boundaries to benefit favored candidates or punish political enemies are nothing new, nor are they activities reserved exclusively for Republicans. But experts say political gerrymandering has never been so prevalent or so effective.

Now, for the first time in 17 years, the US Supreme Court has taken up a case to determine whether at some point political gerrymandering becomes so egregious as to violate safeguards in the Constitution.

The nation's highest court has set aside an hour Wednesday to hear oral argument about gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. The case has national implications because if the justices find a violation, it could invalidate the vast majority of the nation's heavily gerrymandered congressional districts.

Political leaders have the power to change the system themselves. But neither major party is willing to disarm unilaterally. Instead, as exemplified in legislative walkouts in Colorado and Texas over unprecedented attempts at mid-decade redistricting, the nation is spiraling toward all-out gerrymandering warfare.

"There has got to be a better way," says Robert Richie of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Tacoma Park, Md. "We are just completely outside the international norm in the way we allow legislators to draw their own districts."

Experts say gerrymandering is having a profound impact on the political process - sharply reducing the number of competitive elections to the House. For example, in 2002, only four challengers were able to defeat incumbent members of Congress, the lowest number in modern American history, according to political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann.

Both parties are using gerrymandering to gain an advantage. Democratic lawmakers in Maryland gerrymandered longtime Republican Connie Morella out of her seat in the House, as did Democrats in Georgia to Rep. Bob Barr (R). Republicans employed similar tactics in Michigan, Ohio, and Florida.

"Partisan gerrymandering is more brazen than ever," says Burt Neuborne of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, in a friend-of-the-court brief. "Openly rigging control of legislatures a decade in advance is considered neither unusual nor improper."

The basic allegation in Pennsylvania is that gerrymandering undermines the concept of majority rule: Why should Republicans win 12 of 19 congressional seats, when 48 percent of the state's registered voters are Democrats and 42 percent are registered Republicans?

"It would be quixotic to attempt to bar state legislatures from considering politics as they redraw district lines," says Paul Smith of Washington, D.C., in his brief to the court challenging the Pennsylvania plan. "But when one political party guarantees itself a solid majority of seats, even if it wins only a minority of the votes, the Constitution must provide a remedy."

Those defending the Pennsylvania plan say Democrats simply lost their elections, and to be competitive, the party needs stronger candidates. "With its registration plurality, it could have won control of statewide offices and the General Assembly," says John Krill in his brief urging the court to uphold the plan. "But voters in Pennsylvania frequently and massively engage in cross-over and split-ticket voting."

There are alternatives to heavily partisan gerrymandering. Four states - Arizona, Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington - use commissions to draw congressional districts. But the combination of increasingly detailed census information and mapping software has made gerrymandering too attractive to party leaders.

One complicating aspect of the attack on gerrymandering is that similar techniques have been used to increase the chances of minority candidates winning elected office. It is unclear whether a ruling striking down the Pennsylvania plan might also jeopardize voting districts designed to elect minorities to Congress.

The high court itself a few years ago upheld a heavily gerrymandered congressional district in North Carolina that had elected a African-American member to Congress. The court ruled that the gerrymandering was political rather than racial.

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