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Justices take on fight over partisan electoral maps

June 19, 2017 - 2:07 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court is taking on a case about partisan advantage in redistricting that could affect elections across the United States.

The justices on Monday said they will decide whether Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin drew electoral districts so out of whack with the state's political breakdown that they violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters.

It's the high court's first case on what's known as partisan gerrymandering in more than a decade.

Democrats hope a favorable decision will help them cut into GOP electoral majorities. Election law experts say the case is the best chance yet for the high court to put limits on what lawmakers may do to gain a partisan advantage in creating political district maps.

The case will be argued in the fall.

A three-judge court struck down Wisconsin's legislative districts in November and ordered new maps drawn in time for the 2018 elections. The Supreme Court split 5-4 on Monday in ordering that work to be halted while the high court considers the Wisconsin case.

The Constitution requires states to redo their political maps to reflect population changes identified in the once-a-decade census. The issue of gerrymandering -- creating districts that often are oddly shaped and with the aim of benefiting one party -- is centuries old. The term comes from a Massachusetts state Senate district that resembled a salamander and was approved in 1812 by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry.

Both parties have sought the largest partisan edge when they control redistricting. Yet Democrats are more supportive of having courts rein in extreme districting plans, mainly because Republicans control more legislatures and drew districts after the 2010 census that enhanced their advantage in those states and in the House of Representatives.

The challengers to the Wisconsin districts said it is an extreme example of redistricting that has led to ever-increasing polarization in American politics because so few districts are genuinely competitive between the parties. In these safe seats, incumbents tend to be more concerned about primary challengers, so they try to appeal mostly to their party's base.

"Partisan gerrymandering of this kind is worse now than at any time in recent memory," said Paul Smith, who is representing the challengers to the GOP plan in Wisconsin.

Defenders of the Wisconsin plan argued that the election results it produced are similar to those under earlier court-drawn maps. They said the federal court overstepped its bounds and judges should stay out of an inherently political exercise.

"As I have said before, our redistricting process was entirely lawful and constitutional, and the district court should be reversed," Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said.

The justices should correct the lower court's "flawed analysis before it spreads to other jurisdictions and interferes with the states' fundamental political responsibilities," Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller wrote for 12 Republican-dominated states that are backing Wisconsin.

The issue has torn the court for decades. Some justices believe courts have no role to play in a matter best left to elected officials. Others say courts should step in. In 2004, Justice Anthony Kennedy staked out a position somewhere between those two views, saying courts could referee claims of excessively partisan redistricting, but only if they can find a workable way to do so. In that case and again in 2006, Kennedy didn't find one.

The Supreme Court has never struck down districts because of unfair partisan advantage, although it has intervened frequently in disputes over race and redistricting over the past 50 years.

Similar lawsuits are pending in Maryland, where Democrats dominate, and North Carolina, where Republicans have a huge edge in the congressional delegation and the state legislature.

 

Gerrymandering: Drawing districts for political advantage

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide whether Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin drew electoral districts so out of whack with the state's political breakdown that they violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters.

What the Republicans did is called gerrymandering, a centuries-old practice of creating legislative districts that favor one party over another. Both political parties do it when they can.

SO EXACTLY WHAT IS GERRYMANDERING?

Gerrymandering is the practice of one party packing as many voters of the other party into the fewest districts possible.

The term comes from a Massachusetts state Senate district that resembled a salamander and was approved in 1812 by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry.

Every 10 years following the census, states redraw the boundaries of legislative districts to account for population changes, so that the number of people living in each district is about the same. The generic term for the process is called redistricting.

States redraw districts for House seats in Congress and for legislative districts in state legislatures. Cities do it for city council districts.

ON TO WISCONSIN

The Wisconsin case involves the state legislature. In Wisconsin, the Republicans were in charge so they tried to pack as many Democrats as they could into the fewest number of districts.

This left fertile ground in the rest of the state for Republicans to win more legislative seats.

WHO DRAWS THE LINES?

In most states, the redistricting process is controlled by the state legislature and the governor, which is why state elections at the beginning of each decade are so important. In other states, bipartisan commissions draw districts in an effort to reduce gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering has become more precise as computer software has become more sophisticated, enabling map-makers to divide counties, cities and even neighborhoods to maximize their political advantage. The result has been sprawling, odd-shaped districts that might include communities with little in common other than the residents' political affiliation.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that states cannot gerrymander districts in an effort to reduce the influence of minority voters. But the court has never struck down a legislative map for strictly political reasons.

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