It’s almost decision day for partisan gerrymandering. Fewer than four weeks remain in this U.S. Supreme Court session, so rulings in two crucial cases from Maryland and Wisconsin will arrive sometime between this Tuesday and mid-June. There’s national momentum towards fair districts. Judges and citizens have been slowly fighting back against the most extreme partisan manipulations of the system. Rigged maps in Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Texas, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have been struck down. A bipartisan commission won an overwhelming victory in Ohio this month, and an even stronger commission seems likely to be on the ballot in Michigan this fall. Ballot initiatives have also advanced in Colorado, Utah, Missouri and Arkansas. Nevertheless, no one should expect a grand democracy-saving gesture from the Supreme Court. Yes, justices from across the court’s ideological spectrum have agreed that partisan gerrymandering is “distasteful.” They have expressed revulsion over naked power grabs, entrenched majorities insulated from the ballot box, and real fear that new technology and Big Data could make everything even worse when the next redistricting occurs after the 2020 census.
What remains unclear, however, is how five justices cobble together any majority that creates a lasting long-term solution. The short-term problem may be just as serious: Even if five justices can define a constitutional standard that keeps gerrymandering in check, that’s almost certainly too late for this fall’s Wisconsin assembly elections and North Carolina’s congressional contests.
Those elections are likely to be held, once more, on maps that have been ruled unconstitutional — despite lower court orders for new maps that arrived in plenty of time to ensure fair districts in 2018.
We will head toward the 2020 cycle with the strategy clear for partisans of all stripes: Win by any means necessary, gerrymander up to the limit of the law, trust that any judicial fix will be slow, and enjoy the legislative and electoral spoils of unaccountable majorities.