In a major setback for fair elections, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday allowed gerrymandered electoral districts to stand, despite clear evidence that they are based on blatant political calculations that diminish the rights of voters.
“We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. In other words, it’s not the court’s place to say yea or nay.
But if not now, when? As Justice Elena Kagan countered in a 33-page dissent: “If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government. Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one.”
The case involved gerrymandered districts in North Carolina and Maryland. And the ruling means district lines for the 2020 election in North Carolina won’t have to be redrawn. In the 5-4 decision, the court’s four other conservative justices joined Roberts in reversing a number of lower-court rulings that partisan gerrymandering had gone too far.
It certainly has in North Carolina, where 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats are held by Republicans, despite a nearly even split among Democratic and Republican voters. Thanks to advances in technology, North Carolina Republicans have sliced and diced districts in almost microscopic detail to create safe districts for themselves. For instance, to dilute voting power in heavily Democratic Greensboro, they split in two congressional districts represented by Republicans. They also carved N.C. A&T, whose students tend to vote Democratic, into those two districts.
Republicans are right when they point out that Democrats gerrymandered for decades when they controlled the legislature. In fact, each of the two cases before the high court involved the abuse of voter rights by each of the parties. In North Carolina, Republicans are rigging the districts. In Maryland, it’s the Democrats.
In either case it’s wrong, and this editorial board has opposed it consistently over the years, no matter who was in charge.
As for their intentions, North Carolina Republicans have made no secret that this all about self-interest. State Rep. David Lewis, a Republican redistricting committee leader, has openly described the map as a “political gerrymander.” And when noting that it would result in the election of 10 Republicans and three Democrats to Congress, he joked that it was because “I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
As the case made its way through the courts, that statement by Lewis almost became a catchphrase, but it didn’t budge the high court.
Despite the disappointing outcome, there are other possible remedies. State courts could overturn gerrymandered legislative districts under the North Carolina Constitution. And bipartisan attempts in the state House to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission are continuing, though they have been all but ignored by the state Senate.
Even for Republicans, this is a Pyrrhic victory. Sooner or later, they will cede power to the Democrats, who will draw the lines in their favor. And so on.
What goes around will come around. And it will be just as undemocratic then as it is now.