It is a political practice nearly as old as the United States – manipulating the boundaries of legislative districts to help one party tighten its grip on power in a move called partisan gerrymandering – and one the Supreme Court has never curbed. That could soon change, with the nine justices making the legal fight over Republican-drawn electoral maps in Wisconsin one of the first cases they hear during their 2017-2018 term that begins next month. Their ruling in the case could influence American politics for decades. Wisconsin officials point to the difficulty of having courts craft a workable standard for when partisan gerrymandering violates constitutional protections. Opponents of the practice said limits are urgently needed, noting that sophisticated technological tools now enable a dominant party to devise with new precision state electoral maps that marginalize large swathes of voters in legislative elections.
“There is a sense that something has gone amiss with American democracy, that there is this effort to rig the rules of the game,” said Michael Li, an expert in redistricting at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice. “Gerrymandering used to be a dark art, and now it’s a dark science.”
The justices will hear arguments on Oct. 3 in Wisconsin’s appeal of a lower court ruling that found that the electoral map drawn by state Republicans ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution.
The map, drawn after the 2010 U.S. census, enabled them to win a sizable majority of Wisconsin legislative seats despite losing the popular vote statewide to the Democrats. The party’s majority has widened since.