The task of drawing new boundaries for thousands of federal and state legislative districts is still about three years away, yet the political battle over redistricting already is playing out in this year’s midterm elections. North Carolina’s congressional elections were thrown into a week of uncertainty when a federal judicial panel raised the possibility that it would order new districts before the fall elections to correct what it had ruled was unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. It opted against doing that on Tuesday, conceding there was not enough time. In Colorado, Michigan, Missouri and Utah, campaigns are underway for November ballot initiatives that would change the redistricting process so it’s less partisan and creates more competitive districts. National Democratic and Republican groups are pouring millions of dollars into state races seeking to ensure they have officeholders in position to influence the next round of redistricting.
The results from the 2020 census are to be delivered to states in spring 2021, triggering a mandatory once-a-decade redistricting for U.S. House and state legislative seats to account for population changes. How those districts get drawn can help determine which party controls those chambers for years to come.
Current political boundaries are being legally challenged in about a dozen states, on claims of political or racial gerrymandering. The lawsuits seek to force districts to be temporarily redrawn for the 2020 elections and, more importantly, establish legal precedents to be followed during the next census-based redistricting.
A lawsuit in North Carolina appears to hold the greatest potential for change. A federal judicial panel has ruled that 12 of the state’s 13 congressional districts violate the U.S. Constitution because Republican state lawmakers drew them to their own party’s benefit while infringing on the rights of Democratic voters. The case is likely to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which thus far has shied away from setting a standard for determining when partisan gerrymandering becomes unconstitutional.