The Supreme Court Is Due to Rule on Gerrymandering. What’s That?

The Supreme Court Is Due to Rule on Gerrymandering. What’s That?


If the justices conclude, as lower courts have, that the Maryland and North Carolina maps are unconstitutional, they could rule narrowly and strike down just those maps, or they could rule more sweepingly against partisan gerrymandering in general. Either type of ruling would signal to state legislators across the country that extreme partisan maps will no longer be tolerated.

Alternatively, the court could throw up its hands, and say that gerrymandered maps are a political problem that the courts cannot solve, or kick the can down the road based on technical issues. Either of those choices would probably turn the next round of redistricting in 2021 into a partisan blood bath in states where one party controls the process.

A decision by the justices not to outlaw partisan gerrymanders could hasten the efforts already underway to challenge tilted maps in state rather than federal courts. Some state constitutions offer more favorable legal grounds for attacking gerrymanders than the national Constitution does. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated the state’s Republican-drawn congressional map last year based solely on the State Constitution, and Democrats went on to score major gains in the 2018 House elections in the state.

If the Supreme Court lets the gerrymandered maps stand, that would probably give new momentum to citizen-led campaigns to take map-drawing away from state politicians entirely, and give the task to independent redistricting commissions instead. Ballot initiatives last year in Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Colorado and Utah overhauled the redistricting process in those states, and advocacy groups are preparing similar campaigns in Virginia and elsewhere.

Some historians trace partisan mapmaking to Patrick Henry, who is said to have drawn a Virginia House district for the first congressional election, in 1789, to ensure the defeat of his rival, James Madison (other historians take issue with that claim). But the practice takes its name from Elbridge Gerry, another figure from the Revolution, who later served as Madison’s vice president.

When he was governor of Massachusetts in 1812, Mr. Gerry signed a bill allowing his party to draw State Senate districts that were meant to favor its candidates over the rival Federalists. One serpentine district looked to some like a salamander; a Boston editorial cartoonist drew it with a head and claws and labeled it the “gerry-mander.”

Some footnotes to that history: Mr. Gerry may have been unfairly tarred; there is no clear evidence that he supported the maps his party drew. They did not help his party for very long: the Federalists won control of the Senate the following year. And hardly anyone today pronounces his surname correctly; Mr. Gerry said it with a hard G.



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