How the Gerrymandering Supreme Court Case Could Finally Fix America’s Elections

Last week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a landmark case that could put an end to partisan gerrymandering.

While the court isn’t slated to deliver its ruling until June 2018, the case could have major implications for the future of American democracy. Here’s everything you need to know about the issue, the case, and what’s next.

What is partisan gerrymandering?

Gerrymandering is a term coined in the 1800s to describe the practice of drawing electoral districts in a way that favors one group of people over another. At the time, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry redistricted the state to benefit his Democratic-Republican party in a way that was so convoluted it resembled a salamander.

Today, gerrymandering is a common practice used by politicians to ensure their party maintains control in the House of Representatives. While a large number of voters in a given state may favor a certain party, the way district lines are drawn can make all the difference.

For example, in the 2014 congressional election, 44 percent of Pennsylvania voters chose Democratic candidates, yet only 28 percent of House delegates ended up being Democrats.

As Vox outlines below, different district variations can have vastly different results. In this example, a state with equal numbers of Democrat and Republican voters ends up with 75 percent Republican representation in the House purely due to district boundaries.

Via Alvin Chang/Vox

The main way that lawmakers manipulate district lines is through “packing and cracking” — packing most of the opposing party into a small number of districts so their influence is restricted, and/or spreading the opposing party out into many districts so their influence is diluted and they are unable to win district majorities.

Via Alvin Chang/Vox

An inherent part of the gerrymandering problem is that in most cases, state legislatures are in charge of drawing their own district lines, and the controlling party manages the process. This has led to partisan gerrymandering from both major parties in an effort to maintain power — or, political parties choosing voters instead of voters choosing them.

What is Gill v. Whitford?

The current Supreme Court case was originally filed in Wisconsin district court in 2015 by an assembly of Democratic plaintiffs claiming that Republican legislators had unfairly drawn district lines in 2011. (In the subsequent election, Republicans gained 60 percent of State Assembly seats in spite of only earning 49 percent of the vote.)

While partisan gerrymandering has never been deemed illegal, this case positions it as a violation of Democrats’ First Amendment right to assemble. Basically, the plaintiffs allege, Republicans discriminated against voters based on their party affiliation and diminished their voting power.

Though the Supreme Court currently has a conservative majority, it seems that the tie breaking vote will come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who has occasionally sided with the liberal justices.

Based on previous similar hearings, the case hinges on whether the plaintiffs can present Kennedy and the other justices with a workable system to identify and prevent excessive partisan gerrymandering. The new model that political scientists have come up with is called the “efficiency gap” — a measure of how many votes from each party are “wasted” and whether this count prohibits the party from winning elections.

To break down the efficiency gap, researchers determine how many votes a party achieved on top of the necessary majority to win a given district. These votes are considered “wasted” because they did not contribute to the party’s win. Similarly, all votes for the losing party in a given district are considered “wasted.” The wasted votes are then tallied as a percentage of total votes, and the difference between Democrat and Republican wasted votes is calculated. If that difference is greater than 7 percent, say academics, the efficiency gap is too large for the minority party to have a shot at winning the district.

While it may seem opaque, the system is actually a relatively simple way to measure and prevent gerrymandering. Should Justice Kennedy affirm it, it could set the course for an extremely different form of districting and ultimately a fairer election system.

What’s next?   

We may have to wait in suspense for the better part of the next year, but many speculate that Justice Kennedy will side with the plaintiffs in striking down extreme partisan gerrymandering.

As Five Thirty Eight points out, Justice Kennedy directed the majority of his questions during the case’s arguments to the defendants. In general, based on his past rulings, this is a sign he’ll favor the plaintiffs.

And Kennedy has mentioned his distaste for partisan gerrymandering in the past, but expressed the need for a standard way to measure the practice. With the introduction of the “efficiency gap,” he may have found what he was looking for to assess and ultimately put an end to the practice.

With Republicans currently benefiting the most from partisan gerrymandering (one policy institute found that it’s allotted them 17 more seats in Congress than nonpartisan districting would have), a ruling in favor of Wisconsin Dems could reshape the political landscape in the 2018 election and beyond.

Watch John Oliver talk more about the problem of gerrymandering in the United States here:

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