North Carolina is a purple state, narrowly electing a Democratic governor in 2016 while giving a slim presidential victory to Republican Donald Trump. But its congressional delegation is not split so evenly. Republicans hold 10 seats and Democratsonly three. Asked why, one GOP state legislator involved in designing district boundaries had a pithy explanation: “Because I don’t believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.” North Carolina’s lawmakers made no bones about their intention to divvy up voters so that the GOP would retain a large majority of the state’s congressional delegation no matter which way the political winds blow. And they succeeded. But last week, a federal appeals court ruled the redistricting plan unconstitutional because of its discriminatory purpose and effect. It was the first time a federal court had ever struck down a map because of partisan gerrymandering. Parties in power have practiced this method to entrench themselves for as long as anyone can remember. But modern technology has made it possible for legislators to carry out their mission with nearly infallible results.
The Supreme Court, which regularly polices redistricting to prevent racial discrimination, has always declined to overturn such districts on partisan grounds. But in October, the justices heard a case involving a state legislative map in Wisconsin that was also invalidated for unduly favoring Republicans. They have also agreed to consider a lawsuit filed by Republicans over a Maryland congressional district drawn by the Democratic legislature. The court may take the North Carolina case as well.
The case against partisan gerrymandering is not hard to make. It frustrates democracy by preventing voters from evicting those in power. It penalizes voters of one party or the other by deliberately diluting their electoral strength. It renders the consent of the governed largely moot.