Thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Thursday, Americans across the country next year are more likely to vote in elections that are stacked against them.
The court, in a 5-4 decision, threw up its hands and said it could do nothing to stop gerrymandering. This is the practice by which the major political parties trash the most sacred principle of free elections — that every vote counts — by drawing legislative district lines that strongly favor one party’s candidates.
Gerrymandering turns democracy on its head.
Chief Justice John Roberts could not have been less persuasive than when he wrote for the court’s Republican majority that, sure, “gerrymandering is incompatible with democratic principles,” but it’s not the court’s job to do anything about it. Gerrymandering, he wrote, is a “political” question.
This is nonsense.
The Supreme Court wades into “political” questions all the time when the threat to constitutional fundamentals is great — and when it is not. The court felt no reluctance about jumping into the Florida presidential vote recount of 2000 — handing the election to Republican George W. Bush over Democrat Al Gore — though this was an entirely “political” dispute.
Where Roberts really ran off the rails, though, was in his assertion that the states are capable of solving the problem of gerrymandering on their own. They are, he wrote, “actively addressing” the problem “on a number of fronts.”
Roberts apparently is of the view that people who object to gerrymandering should stop bothering the courts and take their complaints to the very same lawmakers who profit from the practice. If a farmer objected to a fox guarding a hen house, we suppose, Roberts would tell the farmer to take it up with the fox.
Yes, voters have passed anti-gerrymandering initiatives in a number of states, including Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Utah. And Oregon and Arkansas are considering ballot proposals to create impartial, citizen-led commissions. But some state constitutions are more amenable to challenges to gerrymandering than others. And many states don’t allow citizens to vote on such matters at all.
Here in Illinois — one of the relatively few states where Democrats, rather than Republicans, are guilty of blatant gerrymandering — good government groups have struggled for decades to end the practice, to no avail. If you are Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and, thanks to gerrymandering, king of the world in Springfield, why would you cede that power?
If Justice Roberts could not see the fundamental threat, Justice Elena Kagan could. Where Roberts was unconvincing, she was compelling.
“Gerrymandering is, as so many justices have emphasized before, anti-democratic in the most profound sense,” Kagan wrote in dissent. “Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. … Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.”
Kagan continued: “The partisan gerrymanders here debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people. These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in offices against the voters’ preferences.”
North Carolina, one of the two states whose gerrymandering practices were before the Supreme Court, has a clear record of thwarting the will of the voters. In 2012, Republican candidates for that state’s U.S. House seats won only 49% of the vote but came away with nine of its 13 seats.
When the time comes to redraw electoral maps after the 2020 Census, gerrymandering is most likely to benefit Republicans nationwide because they have full control over the bicameral legislatures in 30 states, and they hold the governor’s office in 22 of those states. Democrats control the legislature and the governor’s office in only 14 states, including Illinois.
Gerrymandering is especially insidious because it allows political parties that hold power with only a minority of the vote to enact laws that further marginalize the average voter. Republican legislatures, for example, frequently have enacted voter ID requirements that discourage voting by likely Democratic voters — younger people, minorities and the poor. They have typically cut back voting hours at the polls, as well.
Now gerrymandering will only grow worse. Bet on it.
To begin with, the Supreme Court’s ruling will embolden party bosses to go hog wild with gerrymandering. They will worry much less about constitutional challenges.
And the high-tech tools of gerrymandering — artificial intelligence and Big Data — will only grow more precise and effective. Political parties soon will be able to predict with stunning house-by-house accuracy how people will vote and rig their maps accordingly.
In the long run, fair elections are more important than winning elections.
Unfortunately, the Republican majority of the Supreme Court just didn’t get it.
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