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Roberts blind to ills of extreme partisan gerrymandering

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Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court apparently know “extreme partisan gerrymandering” when they see it. Just don’t ask them to do anything to stop or prevent it.

That was essentially what the court said Thursday in its disappointing but not completely surprising 5-4 ruling on whether partisan gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts is constitutional. The court didn’t actually decide whether district lines drawn to maximum partisan advantage — and then some — are constitutional; it only decided it wasn’t its call to say whether they are.

The decision, delivered by the court’s new conservative majority, has significant ramifications for North Carolina, which has one of the extreme partisan gerrymanders the justices examined in the wake of lower federal court rulings that held that, in some instances, voters are being disenfranchised by mapmakers who go too far when trying to solidify political advantage.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court’s majority, disagreed with those lower court rulings, claiming that, in his opinion, the federal courts aren’t the appropriate venue for settling disputes over how partisan legislative and congressional districts are drawn. Those decisions, he wrote, should be left up to the elected officials who approve the district lines and the voters who elect them.

Roberts tried to make clear the court wasn’t condoning “excessive partisan gerrymandering,” particularly in the case of the North Carolina and Maryland congressional maps, which he allowed are “highly partisan.” The former was drawn by Republican lawmakers to secure their party’s 10-3 advantage in North Carolina’s congressional delegation; the latter was drawn by Maryland Democrats to block a Republican from winning in one congressional district.

But Roberts’ opinion seems naive about the effects of political gerrymandering. Under the way our democracy is supposed to work — and Roberts apparently assumes it still does work — voters get to elect people to represent them, and then those representatives vote for or against any given policy proposal or initiative according to what a majority of the constituents living in their district want. If the politician strays too far from constituents’ desires, he or she can be replaced at the polls.

But what happens if the politicians rig the representation system so that they get to decide who their voters are? And what happens when they cast votes based not on what a majority of constituents want, but what a minority demands? That’s what extreme partisan gerrymandering is and what its effect has been.

This rigging of district lines has actually gotten easier given advances in technology. Map-makers can now draw congressional and legislative districts so that one political party can entrench its hold on power, even in states like North Carolina that are closely divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Using these new tools, North Carolina’s GOP legislative majority in fact set out to do just that. When they drew congressional district lines in February 2016, their maps were designed to give them more than 70 percent of our state’s seats in Congress — even though GOP candidates draw only about 50 percent of the vote statewide.

One of the chief architects of the districting plan, state Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, even admitted that creating districts based on extreme partisanship was his goal, telling colleagues his plan would help elect 10 Republicans and three Democrats “because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

In contrast to Roberts’ blindness to the problems caused by extreme partisan gerrymandering, Justice Elena Kagan sees them clearly, and believes they’re something the court should have addressed. In her dissent to the majority opinion, she wrote that partisan gerrymanders “amount to ‘rigging elections’ and allow politicians to “cherry-pick voters to ensure their re-election.”

The bottom line of extremely partisan gerrymanders, Kagan wrote, is that they “disbased and dishonored democracy” because they “deprived citizens of the most fundamental of their constitutional rights: the rights to participate equally in the political process, to join with others to advance political beliefs, and to choose their political representatives.”

If there is a silver lining to the Supreme Court’s decision, it’s that the justices didn’t preclude states from taking action themselves to stop excessive partisan gerrymanders. The constitutionality of North Carolina’s legislative districts in fact is the subject of a current lawsuit in state court that could come to trial this summer. A positive decision in the case could strike a blow against state Republicans’ efforts to gerrymander themselves into permanent political control of the state.

Ultimately, however, this issue of how congressional and legislative districts are drawn won’t be put to rest until North Carolina follows the example of a number of other states that have adopted independent, nonpartisan commissions to draw their district maps. If politicians — Republican and Democratic — just aren’t capable of putting aside their own personal politics to ensure all North Carolinians have a voice in our elections — and nothing to this point suggests they are — we need someone who can.

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