Opinion

When does partisan gerrymandering cross the line?

If you want a glimpse of 2020, look no further than this week’s action at the Supreme Court

Arnold Schwarzenegger speaks in D.C. on Tuesday, calling gerrymandering a “national scandal.” The former California governor led nonpartisan redistricting efforts in his state. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

OPINION — “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” said Rep. David Lewis, a Republican member of the North Carolina general assembly’s redistricting committee. “So, I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

He added: “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.”

If that is not quite a smoking gun, it’s definitely toasty to the touch.

Will quotes like that — transparently revealing the politics behind a policy that favors one party — be enough for the Supreme Court to meddle in the political maneuvering of partisan gerrymandering? This week’s hearings take on a North Carolina case and its mirror in Maryland, where Democrats are accused of skewing a district.

In a joint column in The Washington Post, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, agree with challengers to districts caused by gerrymandering that has been described as “extreme.” But this week’s skeptical questioning by the court’s conservative majority shows reluctance to disturb a tradition that has grown more effective and cutthroat with data, research and computer programs that let politicians choose their voters instead of the other way around.

That doesn’t mean Trump-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh ignored the obvious, telling lawyers arguing the case that he was not going to dispute that “extreme partisan gerrymandering is a real problem for our democracy.”

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In North Carolina, for example, gerrymandering has resulted in the liberal city of Asheville being split, and represented by two of the most conservative Republicans in Congress, Mark Meadows (who caused a stir when he had a black administration staffer stand silently behind him to prove Trump was not capable of committing a racist act) and Patrick McHenry.

Despite nonstop coverage and jockeying by Republicans to set the narrative, the release of Robert Mueller’s report — or more accurately the William Barr four-page summary of the results of the two-year investigation by the special counsel — is just one big story of the week. It may be just a small part of 2020 campaigning, particularly since no one yet knows what’s going to come from numerous in-progress investigations of the Trump family’s dealings, business, political and otherwise.

But the decision of the Supreme Court on gerrymandering, expected to be announced in early summer, could upend upcoming state and federal elections and reverberate far beyond. Just look at what happened in Pennsylvania when gerrymandered districts were declared unconstitutional by the state’s Supreme Court and resulted in 2018 Democratic pickups, based on new maps that more accurately reflected the state’s political leanings. Plus, who’s elected in state races in 2020 will determine what maps get the go-ahead.

This practice and arguments over its fairness are not new. Controlling the vote has always been a part of politics in America, with citizens added reluctantly to the franchise by those who closely guard their power and won’t share it without a sometimes literal fight.

And the disenfranchised have fought. While those able to enlist lobbyists, interest groups and powerful supporters have always had an advantage, the simplicity of one person, one vote gives ordinary citizens a say.

It wasn’t that long ago that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 took a step toward constitutionally administering the vote after poll taxes, literacy tests and murderous retribution kept American citizens from exercising their precious right.

Racial gerrymandering has already been ruled unconstitutional. But increasingly, with partisan splits often indistinguishable from racial ones, telling the difference can be difficult. In this century, voter ID restrictions devised by Republicans in North Carolina’s General Assembly have repeatedly run into court trouble because of their race-driven origins.

Beyond the gerrymandering cases being considered by the Supreme Court, there are fights in Florida over implementing a voter-approved measure to restore voting rights to some former felons and lingering efforts to revise voting practices in Georgia after a close gubernatorial race was won by the man who oversaw his own election.

North Carolina, never one to be left out of a contentious political dispute, has to redo a U.S. House race after evidence-backed charges of election fraud perpetrated by a GOP political operative. (Because of how the 9th District is drawn, post-scandal Republicans still have an edge over any Democrat.)

States such as Pennsylvania are increasingly taking the matter into their own hands, opting to fight their cases in state courts, guided by state constitutions. North Carolina, in a parallel case, is one of them.

The Supreme Court may decide to stand back and let states do the work.

Surprisingly, in the midst of these political duels, several states, including, yes, North Carolina are proposing bipartisan remedies, from proposing that independent commissions draw up voting maps to putting the issue to voters in revised rules or amendments to state constitutions.

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Advocates for making the system fairer range from Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, former California governor, who was a leader in nonpartisan redistricting efforts there, to former Obama administration Attorney General Eric Holder, who is chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

In Washington on Tuesday, Schwarzenegger called gerrymandering a “national scandal,” while Holder drew a link between gerrymandering and voter suppression. “You see the greatest amount of voter suppression in those states that are the most gerrymandered, where you see measures passed by these gerrymandered state legislatures that make it difficult for people to cast a ballot,” Holder said in an NBC News report.

That even partisan opponents are considering reform may be because of fear that the party out of power will be in power someday and do the same thing. However, the optimistic view is that districts that are more purple than deep red or deep blue may lead to candidates and elected officials more willing to collaborate, compromise and get things done.

That definitely would be a change from the status quo.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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