Economics Justice

One Mind-Blowing Chart Shows Why The Supreme Court Took On Gerrymandering

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Partisan gerrymandering is often seen as a significant problem for U.S. democracy. The chart above shows how it works — say you have 50 different people, and you want to slice them up into five different districts. It’s possible, at least in this highly abstract and theoretical case, to divvy things up so that the districts perfectly line up with the population (outcome #1 above).

But if you were in the blue party, and you got to decide how the districts were drawn, you might choose an outcome like #2 above — that ensures you win five districts, while your red opponents don’t win any. Conversely, if red is in power they could draw some funky outlines as in scenario #3. In that case, red wins 60 percent of the districts, despite having only 40 percent of the population.

One way to fix this problem is to prevent parties from drawing their own districts — say, by letting an independent commission handle it. And in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled today that states can allow such commissions to redraw their congressional maps.

This is what Arizona residents did in 2000, when they voted to take redistricting out of the hands of the state legislature and instead put it under the purview of an independent commission. But in the lawsuit before the Supreme Court this term, the Arizona legislature maintained that this arrangement violates the Elections Clause of the Constitution, which states “the times, places and manner of holding elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof.” An independent commission, set up by voters, is not the state’s legislature and therefore is unconstitutional, according to the plaintiffs.

But writing for the majority, Ruth Bader Ginsberg strenuously disagreed: “The history and purpose of the Clause weigh heavily against such preclusion, as does the animating principle of our Constitution that the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government.” She quotes James Madison in further support of this notion: “The genius of republican liberty seems to demand . . . not only that all power should be derived from the people, but that those intrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people.”

The ruling notes that independent commissions can be fraught with issues of their own. But on balance, “they have succeeded to a great degree [in limiting the conflict of interest implicit in legislative control over redistricting].” In concluding, Ginsburg goes so far as to echo one common refrain of redistricting reformers: independent commissions “thus impede legislators from choosing their voters instead of facilitating the voters’ choice of their representatives.”

Practically speaking, this is great news for those wishing to set up redistricting commissions in other states. Similar efforts at the federal level have thusfar received limited support. The challenge of redistricting reform has always been that it requires lawmakers to voluntarily cede power. That’s why Arizona voters took matters into their own hands in 2000.

To those who believe it is undemocratic, gerrymandering is a frustrating problem because there are plenty of good solutions to it. Independent commissions may be a good start, but some are still skeptical of them because they leave the decisions in human hands, with all the biases and imperfections that such a process entails. A more radical step would be to take redistricting out of human hands completely. The technology already exists to do this. All that’s missing is the political desire.

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“One Mind-Blowing Chart Shows Why The Supreme Court Took On Gerrymandering”