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Gill v. Whitford: Supreme Court Tackles Longstanding Issue of Gerrymandering

This month, the United States Supreme Court heard a case regarding the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering. The Gill v. Whitford case emerged after a 2011 redistricting plan in Wisconsin. The case argues that Republicans in Wisconsin had a majority after the 2010 census, and were able to redistrict Wisconsin unfairly in a way to benefit their party.

In 2012, the Democrats in Wisconsin won a majority of the votes (53 percent) but were only rewarded 39 percent of the seats because of how the districts were drawn. In 2016, the District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled in favor of the Democratic voters, and the state of Wisconsin appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Gerrymandering is the practice of redrawing voting district lines in order to increase a party’s political power. This involves “packing” districts by concentrating opposition party voters into a single district and “cracking” oppositions across several districts to dilute their voting power.

The word “gerrymander” is named after Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 redistricted Massachusetts in a way that would benefit his party. The redistricted areas were likened to a salamander, and the word gerrymander became a cross of Gerry and salamander.

In 2004, the Supreme Court heard, Vieth v. Jubelirer, a case about partisan gerrymandering where the plaintiffs argued that Pennsylvania’s redistricting plan was unconstitutional, as it clearly benefitted Republicans. They argued that this violates the one-person, one-vote principle of Article I of the United States Constitution.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld the ruling from the District Court that the partisan gerrymandering was not unconstitutional. One of the issues that arose from this case was that there is no method or standard to measure gerrymandering that was given in the courts. However, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his concurring opinion, “The failings of the many proposed standards for measuring the burden a gerrymander imposes on representational rights make our intervention improper. If workable standards do emerge to measure these burdens, however, courts should be prepared to order relief.”

A potential answer to this challenge arose in the efficiency gap, a measure of wasted votes in a district. The efficiency gap is a measure created in 2014 by political scientist Eric McGhee and law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos. It states that a wasted vote is a vote that did not help elect the winner of a race. If party A won the election, every vote beyond the win is wasted (if they needed 50 percent of the vote, any vote over 50 percent is wasted). If party B lost the election, all of their votes are wasted votes because none of them helped elect the winner.

By comparing the efficiency gap between both parties, proponents argue we would be able to quantify partisan gerrymandering. A gap of zero percent would indicate the districts are fairly drawn because both parties have the same percentage of wasted votes. A larger gap of over seven percent indicates districts are drawn unfairly and the ruling party has the advantage to control voter’s rights.

This relatively simple mathematical measure has been met with the unease of several justices. Chief Justice John Roberts expressed his concern of quantifying gerrymandering, stating, “It may be simply my educational background, but I can only describe it as sociological gobbledygook.”

Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland Todd Eberly spoke to The Point News about the impact of gerrymandering in Maryland. Eberly explained “Maryland’s 3rd Congressional District, which meanders through narrow stretches of four counties, was once described by a federal judge as being ‘reminiscent of a broken-winged pterodactyl, lying prostrate across the center of the state.’” Eberly also said, “this may surprise people, but Republicans routinely receive about 40% of the statewide vote,” while “Democrats are concentrated along the I-95 corridor from Montgomery to Prince George’s County to Baltimore City.”

Eberly explained that the Maryland Congressional delegation used to have four Democrats and four Republicans, but in 2000, Democrats redrew districts to benefit themselves and the delegation became six Democrats and two Republicans. Again in 2010, Republican voters were broken up, which resulted in seven Democrats and one Republican in the Congressional delegation.

As for the effect out of outcome of Gill v. Whitford, Eberly stated, “If the Supreme Court sides with the plaintiffs in Gill v. Whitford then it could mean fairly drawn districts in Maryland and in every state.” For Maryland, this would likely mean more Republican delegates, and in other states such as Texas, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina “that were gerrymandered by Republicans, it would be Democrats that gain seats.”

After the 2020 census, district lines will once again be redrawn. The outcome of Gill v. Whitford will largely impact how this is done and how districts continue to be drawn. The ruling of Gill v. Whitford is expected in June 2018.

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