It’s a practice almost as old as the country itself: drawing election maps that favor one political party over another.
As states prepare to draw new election boundaries after the 2020 census, what can be done to ensure those maps give equal weight to all votes?
The Supreme Court last week ruled by a vote of 5-4 that it should stay out of disputes over partisan gerrymandering – even if maps were clearly drawn to favor one party over another.
It’s a decision that will impact Illinois and Chicago all the way down to the ward level. So if the Supreme Court won’t act, what can voters do to get fair maps?
“The main alternative in the U.S. is just to have either a nonpartisan or bipartisan commission do the redistricting,” said University of Chicago law professor Nicholas Stephanopolous, an expert in election law.
“In the nonpartisan case the commissioners are basically bureaucrats,” said Stephanopoulos. “In the bipartisan case it’s typically the same number of politicians from each party but because it’s the same number of politicians they have no incentive to gerrymander and instead they tend to come up with a map that is reasonably fair to both sides.”
Stephanopoulos worked with the League of Women Voters in North Carolina as they sought to challenge the legality of the state’s congressional district maps in the Rucho vs. Common Cause case.
In North Carolina, the evidence of partisan gerrymandering couldn’t have been clearer.
In fact, Rep. David Lewis, a Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly’s redistricting committee, was open about that fact.
“I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” Lewis told fellow legislators in 2016. “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country. I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”
That redrawn map ultimately ensured that Republicans were able to capture 10 of 13 congressional districts in 2018 despite getting only marginally more votes than Democrats statewide.
If politicians refuse to draw fair maps then one option some states have is to get enough voter signatures to get a referendum on the ballot to create, for example, an independent election commission that would then draw nonpartisan districts.
However, more than half the states don’t give voters the option of having a referendum through a ballot initiative.
But Stephanopolous notes that the Supreme Court’s decision doesn’t in any way undermine state court litigation under state constitutions or prevent voters from putting initiatives on the ballot in states that permit it.
“The other route is Congress,” said Stephanopolous. “Congress has full, comprehensive power over federal elections and so congress could ban gerrymandering and mandate redistricting commissions tomorrow if it wanted to.”