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When Gerrymandering is “Beyond the Reach” of the Courts, Fair Representation Becomes Further Out of Reach

The Supreme Court recently ruled 5-4 that they had no jurisdiction in the case of partisan gerrymandering in states such as North Carolina, Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio, and Michigan. This ruling was contrary to previous opinions; for example, North Carolina was previously ordered to redraw their congressional districts in what is considered to be one of the most egregious cases of gerrymandering in the United States. The primary reasoning given by the majority opinion was that redistricting is a political act and it is difficult to determine when to intervene. While it is true that the Supreme Court cannot and should not involve themselves in state politics where it is unnecessary, in the case of gerrymandering, a completely hands-free approach is not the best course of action.

Drawing congressional districts based on politics is in no means a recent practice, but in recent years gerrymandering has been an issue of greater concern. The act itself is not prohibited, but gerrymandering based on the racial makeup of an area is, and this is why the Supreme Court ordered the North Carolina General Assembly to redraw their lines. Gerrymandering also occurs around prisons, which allows legislators to skirt around residency requirements for representation and is said to inflate the value of votes in certain areas. Additionally, of course, incarcerated individuals (who are largely from marginalized groups) don’t get a voice.

A 2014 map of election results, illustrating stacked and otherwise misshapen congressional districts. (via Blue Ridge Public Radio)

While some argue gerrymandering can occur unintentionally, in most cases legislators know exactly what they are doing. David Lewis, a Representative of North Carolina’s 53rd District in Harnett County, stated that he believed “electing Republicans was better than electing Democrats”, and that he wanted to encourage what he believed to be “better for the country”. For a party that believes in limiting the amount of influence that the government has, its current legislators seem determined to implement a system that ultimately reduces the autonomy of the communities they serve. Gerrymandering not only impacts the results of elections (and therefore the makeup of the state and federal governments) but also political participation. Feeling like one’s vote does not matter is a factor in reduced voter turnout, and when such inflation of votes occurs due to the work of legislators like Lewis, more people will back away. (Though, it can be argued that this is exactly what politicians want.)

From a layperson’s perspective, it can be difficult to provide an exact solution to this dilemma. Having the Supreme Court or some other higher entity moderate every instance of redistricting would probably cause logistical issues, and it would be subject to the same biases as those drawing the maps in the first place. However, for the majority opinion to completely wash their hands of the situation only allows the issue to fester, as the four dissenters (Kagan, RBG, Breyer and Sotomayor) noted. But one thing is for certain: until more is done to confront the issue of gerrymandering, a large fraction of potential voters will remain disillusioned with this nation’s electoral system.

Featured Image Via Iowa Public Radio

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