Why You Should Care About the Gerrymandering Case in Front of the Supreme Court

In recent years we’ve been stuck with so much dysfunction between Congress and the president, and within Congress itself that it’s easy to forget that one part of government still functions as designed.

Whether you agree or disagree with their decisions, at least the Supreme Court works. Every year they hear a number of cases, research past cases, discuss among themselves, vote, and then issue often-lengthy, mostly-well-reasoned opinions that decide the case.

Sometimes they get it right (validating the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act), and sometimes they get it wrong (Bush v. Gore). Often their decisions have far-reaching consequences for the country, such as when they opened the floodgates for endless spending in political campaigns in the Citizens United case.

Last week the Court heard a case that might seem rather dry and uninteresting, but could have profound effects on the country. It could affect every single law passed by Congress, from Obamacare repeal, to tax reform, to gun violence prevention laws, to anything else you can imagine.

It involves gerrymandering.

That’s one of my favorite political words. Although you might think of it as a relic of the past, like those other unique words you learned in your high school history class, such as Scalawags, muckrakers, and carpetbaggers, gerrymandering still happens today, and our country is the way it is in part because of how it has been gerrymandered.

The term Gerrymander came about in the early 1800s when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that redistricted the state senate districts in nonsensical patterns so that his party ended up with an advantage in elections. One of the more ridiculous districts looked like a salamander, so opponents combined Gerry and salamander and came up with gerrymander, and the name stuck.

Sometimes it’s easier to see in a picture though.

Imagine a square state with one hundred people living in it. It might look like this.


There are 55 blue voters, and 45 red voters. Those 100 people need to be divided into 10 Congressional districts.

This is one way to do it:


Notice that there are 10 districts of 10 people each, and when each of those districts vote we should expect the blue candidate to win 6 seats (60%), and the red candidate to win 4 seats (40%).

Now, let’s take a look at a gerrymandered district map.


Here there are also 10 districts of 10 people each, but because the red politicians got to design the boundaries of the district, they did so in such a way so they will win 7 seats (70%) - despite having only 45% of the voters - and the blue politicians will win 3 seats (30%) - despite having 55% of the voters.

This is a simplified example, but it’s very similar to what happened in the state of Wisconsin.

Redistricting of state legislative and congressional districts is done every ten years. In 2010, thanks to backlash against Obamacare, Republicans won control of the Wisconsin state legislature, and for the first time in 40 years controlled redistricting in the state.

They used high-speed computer technology, mapping science, and voter data to create legislative districts that they knew would help ensure a Republican majority in the legislature. The next election proved them right.

Here are the state legislative electoral results for Wisconsin under the old plan:

2008: Democrats won 55% of the vote and got 53% of the seats.
2010: Republicans won 56% of the vote and got 61% of the seats.

So the districts were already slightly unfair in favor of the Republicans, but given the chance to draw new boundaries themselves, Republicans capitalized.

The new map, drawn by Republicans, produced the following results:

2012: Republicans won 47% of the vote and got 61% of the seats.

Republicans have increased their gains in the two elections since.

The question before the Court is how unfair can politicians make these districts, and what standard can be used to determine whether a map is unfair?

It’s rather clear in this instance that the Republican-controlled legislature manipulated the districts to create a situation where minority rules. Republicans won fewer votes, yet they held a great many more seats.

This shouldn’t be surprising though. Republicans win elections when they can limit the number of people who vote, or when systems are designed in such a way that majority doesn’t rule.

Both parties have been guilty of gerrymandering in the past, but Republicans are well aware that if districts were drawn fairly, if all eligible voters were permitted to vote, and if the person who got more votes won, that they’d lose most elections.

Republicans have lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

They continue to push voter ID laws even though they couldn’t find a single instance of voter fraud that would have been prevented by the voter ID law when arguing a case before the Supreme Court.

Their party leader claims that three million people voted illegally in the last election, yet has provided zero evidence to back up the claim, after promising to do so.

Republicans have a vested interest in making sure the party in charge isn’t necessarily the party who received the most votes.

So after the 2012 election, even though the majority of Wisconsin voters voted against Republicans, Republicans ran the state.

And it’s not just a problem in Wisconsin. After the 2012 elections, Republicans held a 33-seat advantage in the U.S. House of Representatives, yet the Democrats actually received more votes in House races!

Gerrymandering helps ensure that one party doesn’t have to win a majority of votes to become the party in power. It lets politicians choose their voters rather than letting voters choose their politicians. Hopefully the Supreme Court will understand how antithetical such a concept is to the Constitution and strike down the Wisconsin district map.

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