David A. Graham: John Roberts says partisan gerrymandering is not his problem
But the congressional map isn’t a purely organic expression of political-geographic proclivities; it’s also an expression of political shenanigans, in which elected officials choose their voters rather than vice versa. State officials draw districts to protect incumbents of their parties. They may, for instance, lump as many opposing voters as possible into as small a number of districts as possible, and then spread just enough co-partisans (say, 51 percent) into as large a number of districts as possible.
The mapmakers are political Picassos sketching abstract art. For example, the old Seventh Congressional District of Pennsylvania, in the suburbs and exurbs of Philadelphia, was nicknamed “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck.” It scooted around Democratic neighborhoods and looped in Republican neighborhoods. The result? Contours that vividly resembled two Disney characters locked in mortal combat—and a safe seat for the GOP. Last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state’s gerrymandered congressional lines and adopted a new map in the 2018 elections. The previous delegation had five Democrats and 13 Republicans. The current delegation has nine Democrats and nine Republicans.
Gerrymandering isn’t new, of course. It was first used in 1812 to draw Massachusetts state legislative districts that were signed into law by then-Governor and future Vice President Elbridge Gerry. What is relatively new is the repudiation of compromise by the very large number of incumbents who fear a primary over a general-election challenge. Today’s Supreme Court decision will give those incumbents no reason to change that calculus, and in fact could embolden them and further inflame the partisan divide.
We both served in Congress, on opposing sides, and each felt these pressures every day we were in office.
Read: The Supreme Court enshrines winner-take-all politics
The good news is that the process is being corrected at the state and local levels.
Grassroots efforts have persuaded several states to adopt better redistricting standards. Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington all currently have independent or nonpartisan redistricting rules in place. Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Utah will have either commissions or new practices ready for the next round of redistricting.
Still, today’s Supreme Court decision is an enormous setback; the conservative majority has given a green light to partisan gerrymandering in every state that has not acted independently to curb this activity.
The next redistricting process in state capitals begins after the 2020 census and the 2020 elections. Which is why the first question in every presidential, gubernatorial, and state legislative debate should be: “Will you support fair and independently drawn districts?”