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US Supreme Court deals blow to opponents of political gerrymandering

La Cour suprême à Washington, photographiée le 14 mars 2017
AFP

Washington (AFP) – The US Supreme Court on Monday rejected two major claims challenging partisan gerrymandering, dealing a blow to reformers seeking to end a practice they say undermines democracy.

Judges issued rulings citing procedural grounds for dismissing the claims by Democratic voters in the state of Wisconsin and Republicans in Maryland.

Many had hoped the court would end once and for all the re-drawing of voting districts by incumbents to disadvantage their opponents.

“The Supreme Court missed an opportunity today to lay down a firm marker as to when partisan gerrymandering is so extreme that it violates the constitutional rights of voters,” said Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Wisconsin case was started by a 77-year-old retired academic, Bill Whitford, who was tired of his state legislature going solidly Republican for decades, even in years when Democrats won greater shares of the vote.

But the Supreme Court ruled Monday that Whitford and his co-complainants lacked standing to challenge the entirety of the Wisconsin electoral map.

The judges also cited procedural grounds to dismiss the Maryland case.

Paul Smith, the lead lawyer for the Wisconsin case, said the ruling left room to maneuver. “The basic bottom line is there will be plaintiffs with clear standing,” he told reporters. 

“There will probably be more added. And when we get back to the district court we should be in a position to win very substantial relief.”

At the heart of the gerrymandering is the issue of what political scientists refer to as “wasted votes” in winner takes all, first-past-the-post voting systems.

Whitford, the professor, added: “I’m both kind of encouraged and discouraged by this decision. I’m encouraged because there’s no reason to think that we can’t present the evidence” the court requires.

“The discouraging thing is just the delay, this case was filed in 2015,” he said. “I think it’s important for Wisconsin to have new legislative districting before the 2020 election. Those are very important elections because that legislature will participate in redistricting after the next decennial census.”

The US constitution envisaged that, in order to account for population growth, legislature boundaries would be redrawn every 10 years. But the centuries-old text makes no mention of independent commissions as seen in other countries.

The task therefore falls to whichever party is in power and those wishing to tilt the playing field in their favor have two major tools at their disposal. 

The first is heavily concentrating their opponents’ likely voters into districts that allow them to win those areas by heavy margins — thereby wasting every vote above the 50 percent mark — known as “packing.”

“Cracking” on the other hand involves spreading opponent voters across districts where the favored party maintains a slim majority, thereby ensuring the losers’ votes are wasted.

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