Gerry-meandering

It's a rare day indeed when the Supreme Court takes a case involving a building block of democracy and then throws up its hands, deciding voters and their legislators are the best ones to act.

Such a day occurred last week when the high court decided, in a 5-4 ruling, that the redrawing of voting districts by state legislatures to benefit one political party over another may be unfair, but it's more a matter left to politics than a concern of constitutional justice.

Gerrymandering is almost as old as the republic, and yet it's become worse in recent years as polling techniques and computer software make it easier for incumbent legislators or dominant parties to carve up districts in convoluted ways to create "safe" districts or a virtual one-party statehouse.

Like pornography, gerrymandering is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. The Supreme Court did clearly rule in 1960 that redistricting to disempower racial minorities is illegal. Then in 1986, it suggested partisan gerrymandering might be unconstitutional if it went too far.

Last week it faltered at deciding whether an oddly drawn district in Pennsylvania had gone too far. Four of the five justices in the majority even endorsed the idea that courts should never get involved in gerrymandering cases. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the Constitution didn't provide "a judicially enforceable limit on the political considerations that the states and Congress may take into account when districting."

At the least, the court acknowledged that the Pennsylvania map was drawn to benefit one party. And in effect, it admitted that voter outrage is the main solution to gerrymanding's effects in creating long-term (and unhealthy) political dominance by one party or elected representative.

So now it's up to the American people to force their state legislatures to create voting districts that primarily reflect equality, contiguity, unity, and compactness - the key criteria for fairness in redistricting.

Governing the nation requires a competition of ideas and interests, and voters lose that if they passively accept the type of mercantile politics that allows legislative monopolies.

Either through pressure groups or ballot initiatives, voters can make themselves heard, rather than throwing up their hands in resignation.

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