Following the release of the 2020 Census report, a number of political observers have raised concerns that congressional redistricting could be manipulated in favor of one political party over the other.
Such a tactic, commonly known as gerrymandering, is feared to become even more pervasive because of a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
“The Supreme Court has officially retreated”
According to The Hill, these concerns stem from the fact that the two decisions serve to reduce the role of the federal court system and Department of Justice in overseeing — and possibly reversing or vetoing — particularly egregious manipulations of congressional district maps.
Gerrymandering is a controversial process dating back to 1812 when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed off on a redrawn map of legislative districts that favored his own Jeffersonian Republican Party over the Federalists. One district was said to resemble a salamander, which led to the tactic’s unique name.
Of course, the practice of manipulating districts for political gain predates the United States and has been employed by various political parties throughout the nation’s history.
Efforts such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to address the issue, but rulings including Shelby County v. Holder in 2013 and Rucho v. Common Cause in 2019 have undone the few protections already in place.
As The Hill reported, New York University School of Law scholar G. Michael Parson explained: “Now that the Supreme Court has officially retreated from the area, they’ve set off what will likely be an arms race between the parties to gerrymander to the fullest extent they can in the states where they hold control.”
“A particularly dangerous turning point”
Parsons specifically referenced the 5-4 Rucho ruling in which the high court determined that partisan gerrymandering was a political question at the state level and of no concern to federal courts.
“I think the Roberts Court’s voting rights decisions have hastened democratic decline, and Rucho marks a particularly dangerous turning point because it officially sanctions the pursuit of partisan advantage as a permissible exercise of state power,” he explained. “Some justices have implied as much in prior cases, but Rucho’s majority holding makes this explicit.”
Also of concern to gerrymandering opponents is the Shelby County ruling, which struck down the ability of the Justice Department to prescreen and overrule redrawn district maps in certain jurisdictions with a prior history of racial discrimination.
“Now states can enact brazen partisan gerrymanders and not worry about the racial impact of the maps preventing pre-clearance,” Parsons said.
What he and others fail to mention, however, is that federal courts can still become involved in particularly egregious redistricting issues. Since Republicans control more state legislatures than Democrats after the most recent census, many on the left are likely more worried about the advantage their partisan rivals will have in the process.