Supreme Court Case Could Have Huge Impact on Who Wins Future Elections
A high court ruling on gerrymandering has the potential to reshape every area of American politics for generations
By David S. Cohen
Jun 23 2017
What do you think is the most important issue in American politics today? Criminal justice reform? Health care? Global climate change? Immigration? Gay rights? Economic justice? ISIS? Creeping totalitarianism?
All of those things (and more!) are incredibly important, but they may all be secondary to something else: gerrymandering. And earlier this week, the Supreme Court announced that it was going to decide a case that could potentially reform the practice entirely.
For those not familiar with the term, gerrymandering is the process by which state legislators draw voting district boundaries, for both congressional and state legislature districts. That sounds pretty boring, but in essence the power to draw voting district boundaries is, in many situations, akin to the power to determine who wins elections.
This process usually happens every 10 years, and the party in control of the state legislature is, in most states, the one that’s in charge. In theory, re-drawing boundaries happens in order to balance the districts with population changes. Every 10 years, the census data is released, so if a district has grown in size, then the boundaries need to change so that each district in the state has roughly the same number of voters.
However, as computing power has grown and big data has become ubiquitous, the party in power often uses all that it knows about voters to re-draw the lines to its advantage. To illustrate how pernicious this can be, let’s consider two different situations involving a state with 200 voters, divided into five districts – so, 40 voters in each.
Scenario 1: The voters are split 116 Democrat to 84 Republican. It would make reasonable sense for the five districts to be split proportionately, producing three Democrats and two Republicans in office.
However, with clever line-drawing, gerrymandering could result in the state having four Republican districts and a single Democratic one if the lines are drawn as follows:
District 1: zero Republicans, 40 Democrats
District 2: 21 Republicans, 19 Democrats
District 3: 21 Republicans, 19 Democrats
District 4: 21 Republicans, 19 Democrats
District 5: 21 Republicans, 19 Democrats
If all of these voters vote according to how the legislators expect them to – and the legislators know an awful lot about us to be able to accurately predict these things – this 116-to-84 Democratic state will produce a four-to-one Republican split.
Scenario 2: The voters are split 105 Democrat to 95 Republican. With this almost-even division, a three-to-two split favoring either party would be entirely reasonable.