Justices could enter major battle over redistricting
WASHINGTON — In an era of deep partisan division, the Supreme Court could soon decide whether the drawing of electoral districts can be too political.
A dispute over Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn boundaries for the state Legislature offers Democrats some hope of cutting into GOP electoral majorities across the United States. 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 justices could say as early as Monday whether they will intervene.
The Constitution requires states to redo their political maps to reflect population changes identified in the oncea-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 U.S. House of Representatives.
In the Wisconsin case, a federal court struck down the districts as unconstitutional in November, finding they were drawn to unfairly minimize the influence of Democratic voters.
The challengers to the Wisconsin districts say 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.
“If the court is not willing to draw a line here, it would suggest the court is unlikely ever to feel comfortable setting a limit,” said Richard Pildes, an election law expert at New York University’s law school.
Defenders of the Wisconsin plan argue that the election results it produced are similar to those under earlier courtdrawn maps. They say judges should stay out of an inherently political exercise.