Supreme Court Gerrymandering Ruling Shows Priorities
Yet in the same split decision, the Court found that the Trump administration’s stated reasons for adding the question “seems to have been contrived” and remanded the case back to the lower courts for more arguments. That move decreased the likelihood that the Commerce Department will be able to win its case in time for the 2020 Census, but the decision as a whole opens the door for a future Congress or a future administration—more likely a Republican one—to include the citizenship question as long as it adequately explained its reasoning. As in the gerrymandering case, the Court found that the question of how to implement a population count that determines electoral representation is more about politics than it is about law.
The gerrymandering decision, however, is the one that will have far more immediate implications. The Supreme Court turned aside legal challenges to a Republican-drawn map in North Carolina and a Democratic-drawn map in Maryland. And in the process, it significantly raised the stakes of the 2020 elections for governor and state legislatures across the country, because the winning parties will, in many cases, have the power to draw maps based on next year’s Census that help keep them in office for a decade to come. That is, in large part, how Republicans were able to cement the victories they earned in 2010, in which they not only won control of the U.S. House but ousted Democrats from statehouses in dozens of races nationwide. “The Supreme Court’s decision has made one thing clear: The only way we’ll end partisan gerrymandering is by voting Republicans out of power in state legislatures,” said Jessica Post, executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
The decision was a defeat for centrists who had looked to the courts to call out politicians in both parties for trying to “choose their voters” by drawing maps that advantaged incumbency. But it was not a death blow to the redistricting reform movement. The Court gave wide latitude to states and to Congress to limit partisan gerrymandering through legislation, and Roberts specifically noted that numerous states were already addressing the issue through amendments to their constitutions that placed the power to draw district lines in the hands of independent commissions. “The Framers,” he wrote, “also gave Congress the power to do something about partisan gerrymandering in the Elections Clause. That avenue for reform established by the Framers,
and used by Congress in the past, remains open.”
That message may be cold comfort to centrists who have struggled to win elections in an increasingly polarized political climate, and who argue that this decision will make it even more difficult to oust Republicans and Democrats who have written the rules in their favor. But at least now they know their challenge is clear: Advocates for election reform can no longer turn to the courts for salvation—they must win at the ballot box instead.
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