The Supreme Court has long kept a distance from arguments over gerrymandering, that most American practice of redrawing the lines of legislative districts in order to tip elections toward the party in power. But early next month, the justices will hear a challenge to the 2011 redrawing of Wisconsin’s state legislative map by Republican lawmakers — a demonstration of how increasingly powerful technology allows partisan mapmakers to distort representation with ever-greater precision. Using computer modeling, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature produced districts so unbalanced that, in 2012, Republicans won a supermajority in the state assembly even after losing the popular vote. And the state GOP continued to entrench that hold in 2014 and 2016, even after winning only slim majorities of the vote.
Given that the case, Gill v. Whitford, concerns an egregious abuse of power to the advantage of Republicans, it’s heartening to see officials of that same party condemn Wisconsin’s map. In a series of recently filed legal briefs before the Supreme Court, high-profile Republican politicians — including Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — stand shoulder to shoulder with Democrats to report from the “political front lines” on the destructive effects of gerrymandering.
The legal arguments against extreme partisan gerrymandering focus on the practice’s offensiveness to constitutional promises of equal protection and free expression: Voters packed into skewed districts have less of a voice in the political process and are arguably penalized for their party affiliation. And in cases such as Wisconsin’s, technology allows legislators to create maps that essentially immunize the party in power from ever being voted out. The bipartisan briefs make clear how a practice designed to undercut democratic competition further degrades American politics by weakening public faith in government and pushing lawmakers away from compromise, especially in the House of Representatives. This is not an issue of one party’s advantage over another — Democrats have also used gerrymandering against Republicans when convenient, most notably in Maryland — but a matter of bipartisan concern.