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The War Against Gerrymandering Successfully Goes On

While the Supreme Court ruling on partisan gerrymandering is disappointing, the fight is far from over. With SCOTUS having made clear that no relief from the federal courts is coming, it’s more important than ever to double down on the fronts where gains are being made.

July 1, 2019

Cross-posted from the Phil­adelphia Inquirer

Partisan gerry­man­der­ing has had its long-awaited day of reck­on­ing at the Supreme Court. Unfor­tu­nately, if Amer­ic­ans were hoping for a decis­ive blow against the rigging of maps, the Supreme Court went in the oppos­ite direc­tion and slammed the door shut once and for all.

But while the ruling is disap­point­ing, espe­cially given the egre­gious facts of the cases, the fight against gerry­man­der­ing is far from over. That’s because, despite the drama of a show­down at the Supreme Court, the fight was never only about winning in the federal courts. The fight against gerry­man­der­ing has always been, and remains, a war with multiple fronts, includ­ing state courts, the ballot box, the nation’s legis­latures, and Congress. And on those other fronts, it is a fight that is not only going well but produ­cing victory after victory. With the Supreme Court having made clear that no relief from the federal courts is coming, it’s more import­ant than ever to double down on the fronts where gains are being made.

Some of the biggest victor­ies in recent years have come not from hand-wringing courts but at the ballot box. Last year, voters in a record five states adop­ted redis­trict­ing reforms, ranging from inde­pend­ent commis­sions in Michigan and Color­ado to strong anti-gerry­man­der­ing rules in Ohio. These reforms follow success­ful voter-led initi­at­ives in Cali­for­nia and Flor­ida a decade earlier.

And far from being partisan power grabs, all these reforms passed with over­whelm­ing bipar­tisan support. In Ohio, the state’s 2018 redis­trict­ing reform amend­ment won a super­ma­jor­ity in every single congres­sional district, red and blue. Reform meas­ures in other states in 2018, like­wise, were popu­lar across the polit­ical spec­trum. Talk to people who went door to door to canvass for signa­tures, and they will tell you it was some of the easi­est signa­ture gath­er­ing they’ve ever done. Repub­lican doors, Demo­cratic doors, it didn’t matter. Every­one signed, a power­ful signal, if there ever was one, of how frus­trated Amer­ic­ans are with gerry­man­der­ing.

But the bipar­tisan momentum for reform is coming more and more not just from grass­roots activ­ists armed with clip­boards but from lawmakers them­selves. In New Hamp­shire, lawmakers passed a bill currently await­ing the governor’s signa­ture that will create an inde­pend­ent advis­ory commis­sion to draw maps start­ing in 2021. Ditto Virginia, where lawmakers almost unan­im­ously passed a consti­tu­tional amend­ment creat­ing a commis­sion to draw maps for legis­lat­ive consid­er­a­tion. (The amend­ment still needs to pass again next year and go to voters before it becomes law.) Campaigns to put redis­trict­ing reform meas­ures on the ballot are under­way in Arkan­sas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Others may soon join the list.

But, of course, reform isn’t real­istic in every state. That’s why it is also vital for Congress to act. H.R. 1, already passed in the House, would build on success­ful reforms in the states and require every state to use an inde­pend­ent commis­sion to draw congres­sional district bound­ar­ies. As import­antly, it would put in place strong meas­ures to ensure trans­par­ency and the abil­ity of the public to have a mean­ing­ful role in a process that histor­ic­ally has occurred behind closed doors and been domin­ated by polit­ical oper­at­ives and insiders.

Unfor­tu­nately, H.R. 1 is all but dead in the Senate thanks to Major­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell’s unwill­ing­ness to even allow a hear­ing on the bill, much less let it come to a vote. That means that the broad­est reforms at the national level will have to wait until after the next round of redis­trict­ing. But despite that, there still are some simple things that Congress can do to make sure the maps drawn in early 2021 are fairer. As a bridge to broader reforms, the next Congress should make it a prior­ity to pass, as one of its very first acts, a law banning partisan gerry­man­der­ing and putting in place uniform, clear, and trans­par­ent rules for the redraw­ing of congres­sional maps will take place that winter and spring.

State courts, in the mean­time, can be another avenue for attack­ing gerry­man­der­ing. In 2018, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down that state’s gerry­mandered congres­sional map that locked in a 13–5 Repub­lican advant­age in a state that is one of the most compet­it­ive in the nation. Under the new map that replaced it, Pennsylvania went from having one of the least respons­ive maps in the coun­try to one of the most. A legal chal­lenge is simil­arly pending in North Caro­lina to gerry­mandered legis­lat­ive maps.

By wide margins, Amer­ic­ans of all polit­ical persua­sions say they hate gerry­man­der­ing. The good news is that they aren’t depend­ent on the Supreme Court to fix it.

Credit: Getty/suprun