A Supreme Court that prides itself on trying to remain above politics will be forced to rule soon on what one justice calls the “always unsavory” process of drawing election districts for partisan gain. A case headed its way from Wisconsin, along with others from Maryland and North Carolina, will present the court with a fundamental question about political power: How far can lawmakers go in choosing their voters, rather than the other way around? Should the court set a standard — something it has declined to do for decades — it could jeopardize about one-third of the maps drawn for Congress and state legislatures. That could lead to new district lines before or after the 2020 Census, which in turn could affect election results and legislative agendas. “If the court makes a broad, sweeping decision … this could have a massive impact on how maps are drawn,” says Jason Torchinsky, a lawyer for the Republican National Committee. “It will make more districts more competitive.”
The issue is reaching the high court at a time when both Republicans and Democrats have improved the art of drawing congressional and legislative maps to entrench themselves in office for a decade at a time. Computer software increasingly helps them create safe districts for their most conservative and liberal candidates, whose success invariably leads to more partisan gridlock in government.
Earlier this week, the justices struck down congressional district lines drawn by North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature because they used voters’ racial composition to maximize political advantage. The court has ruled similarly on Virginia and Alabama racial redistricting plans.
Now, however, the Wisconsin case will confront the high court with raw politics, not race. The state is one of several battlegrounds where Republicans and Democrats fought to a virtual draw in last year’s presidential election, but where Republicans enjoy election districts that have given them a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in the state Assembly.