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Earlier this month, the nation’s highest court heard oral arguments in a case that could have far-reaching implications for American elections. Focused on electoral gerrymandering in Wisconsin, the case forces the Supreme Court justices to consider their own role in legislative redistricting.
What is gerrymandering?
Each decade, lawmakers re-draw legislative districts to account for the most current census data. This ensures that each district contains roughly the same number of voters. However, the political party in power typically has control of where the borders are drawn – giving them significant leeway to strategically divide voters by neighborhood, race, income or, as alleged in this case, political party.
Gerrymandering is the process of manipulating the boundaries of legislative districts to benefit one political party, typically the party in power. It is a uniquely American practice, and one that’s nearly as old as our democracy itself. But some believe it unfairly allows the controlling party to consolidate its base and unconstitutionally influence election results in the future.
Should courts intervene?
While politicians in both parties have faced allegations of unconstitutional manipulation of electoral maps, the case before the Supreme Court revolves around Republican redistricting in Wisconsin. For the present, Republicans seem to have a strong hold on Wisconsin’s legislature. Is this because legislative redistricting has rigged the game, or because the Republican Party reflects the views of the majority of voters?
Last November, a federal court ruled that Wisconsin’s electoral map violated the Constitution – specifically the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause and the First Amendment freedoms of speech and association.
Now the Supreme Court must decide whether courts should have a say in such matters. While the Court has invalidated electoral maps that were discriminatory based on race, they have never ruled on maps that give one political party an advantage.
High stakes on both sides
Like most cases that make it to the country’s highest court, this one is steeped in controversy. Attorneys and experts on both sides have spoken about the risks if the Court doesn’t go their way.
Republicans and other supporters of the state’s redistricting warn that overturning the map would “launch a redistricting revolution.” They argue that courts would be in the tenuous position of having to referee partisan squabbles over legislative districts all over the country.
On the other side, those who believe the Wisconsin map to be unconstitutional warn that to do nothing would encourage other states to follow suit, further disenfranchising voters and compromising the integrity of elections nationwide.
Will SCOTUS decide along party lines?
According to Wisconsin Public Radio, the justices appeared sharply divided in oral arguments – primarily between those appointed by Democratic presidents and those appointed by Republicans. However, it may not be an easy 5-4 victory for conservatives; Justice Anthony Kennedy sometimes takes the side of the more liberal justices.
What makes Justice Kennedy’s dilemma particularly interesting is his opinion in a similar case from 2004. In that case, he left room for the Court to develop a “workable standard” for assessing partisan gerrymandering. All eyes will be on Justice Kennedy while the Court decides this landmark case. No matter how the Court decides, it will likely influence electoral maps – and perhaps election results – all over the United States.