If you were properly appalled by the shooting of a Republican congressman on a baseball field last week, we expect you were cheered by the news Monday that the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider a key reason American elections have grown so partisan and vitriolic.
It is safe to say that the uncompromising politics and overheated rhetoric of our times contributed to the dark atmosphere in which an unstable man went on a shooting spree against Republicans. He wounded five people, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana.
It is also fair to say that this polarization in politics, in which increasing numbers of congressmen and state legislators answer only to the hard-core ideologues of their respective party’s base, is the direct result of how voting districts are drawn. Legislatures across the country increasingly draw boundaries in a painfully contorted manner — what’s known as gerrymandering — to create extreme partisan advantages. In a gerrymandered “safe” seat, an incumbent faces no serious challenger in a general election. The only race that matters is the party primary, where voters are likely to reward the candidate who is the most uncompromising.
It was because of gerrymandering that Republicans in the House earlier this year approved a draconian new health care bill, a replacement for the Affordable Care Act, without bothering to work with Democrats. They didn’t have to. They know they will be rewarded, not punished, in next year’s primary elections for refusing to budge on this issue and others, including tax reform and immigration policy.
It is also because of gerrymandering, in part, that Illinois suffers from political paralysis. Dozens of state representatives and senators have little incentive to work across party lines on a compromise state budget because they represent lopsidedly Democratic or Republican districts. They don’t fear the voters. Thanks to gerrymandering, they picked their voters. State senate and house districts are so gerrymandered that in almost 60 percent of all races last fall, the incumbent ran unopposed for reelection.
Many legislators in Springfield fear only party bosses and people with money. They worry, above all, about House Speaker Mike Madigan and Gov. Bruce Rauner, who could run a well-funded challenger against them in a primary. They do the leaders’ bidding, not the voter’s.
The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear the case of Gill v. Whitford, in which it is alleged that the Wisconsin Legislature and governor gerrymandered the state’s legislative map so completely that Democrats have been robbed of the power of their vote. The proof is in the numbers: Last fall, slightly fewer than half of all Wisconsin voters voted for Donald Trump for president, but Republicans won two out of every three state House seats.
If the Supreme Court rules that there is a constitutional limit to how much party-based gerrymandering a legislature can get away with, that could reshape dramatically the way district lines are drawn following the 2020 Census. The court previously has ruled that race-based gerrymandering is unacceptable, but it has never ruled on party-based gerrymandering, though the practice grows ever more common and sophisticated with every new clever software program.
That growing sophistication may be why the high court has decided to wade in now. Computer analysis could provide the court with, in the words of Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2004, the “limited and precise” rationale necessary to set rules.
Thanks to computer analysis, it is possible now to count the exact number of “wasted” votes in a gerrymandered district — the votes that went to the candidate who was sure to lose, plus the votes that went to the winning candidate that were in excess of what was needed to win. From this, an “efficiency gap” can be measured, which could be used to set a limit on possible gerrymandering.
After Rep. Scalise was shot last week, Americans by the millions called for a more civil tone in our politics. But raw self-interest today so often works against comity and bipartisanship, especially on primarily election day in a heavily gerrymandered district.
For decades, good government groups in Illinois and elsewhere have worked to end gerrymandering, proposing constitutional amendments and the like. They have been thwarted at every turn by powerful party leaders like Mike Madigan.
Nobody in politics voluntarily gives up power.
If ever there were a job for the Supreme Court, this is it.