On Tuesday, a panel of federal judges struck down North Carolina’s congressional map, ruling it an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. State Republicans had drawn district lines with such ruthlessness that they had won ten out of thirteen seats in the 2016 election—77 percent—even though they got only 53 percent of the vote. GOP lawmakers, wrote Judge James Wynn Jr., had been “motivated by invidious partisan intent.” Republicans had openly admitted as much. “Nothing wrong with political gerrymandering,” declared one of the lawmakers leading the process at a 2016 hearing. “It is not illegal.” The GOP is likely to appeal Tuesday’s ruling to the Supreme Court on those grounds. Whether courts are empowered to block partisan gerrymanders—as opposed to gerrymanders involving racial discrimination, which just about everyone agrees are unconstitutional—is a question the justices considered in October when they heard Gill v. Whitford, a challenge to Wisconsin’s state assembly map. The fate of North Carolina’s map likely hangs on how the court decides Gill. A ruling is expected before the end of June.
There’s much more at stake, too. An opinion in Gill that significantly reduces partisan gerrymandering could radically reshape the redistricting process for this decade and the next, with major implications for the fight to control both Congress and state legislatures. But it also could help fix America’s increasingly embattled democracy.
Gill and the enormous gerrymander from which it emerged underscore how the justices’ failure to act when they last had the chance, over a decade ago, has warped American electoral politics almost beyond recognition. Essentially, it has allowed Republicans to turn the last three elections for Congress and many statehouses into a strange simulacrum of competition, in which the parties compete vigorously for votes even though GOP control has often been all but assured from the outset. At stake in Gill, ultimately, is the question of whether election outcomes can be made once again to provide at least a rough reflection of the popular will.