Americans are fed up with gerrymandering. The most recent Harris poll shows that 74 percent of Republicans, 73 percent of Democrats, and 71 percent of independents believe that politicians shouldn’t have a hand in drawing lines that benefit them.
Despite public opposition across the political spectrum, politicians have taken a stronger and stronger hand in line-drawing, resulting in gerrymandered maps that are more and more extreme. The problems continue to mount: A combination of “Big Data,” single-party control of state governments, and polarized politics have allowed paid political operatives to craft increasingly surgical gerrymanders far more potent than their precursors, locking in lopsided maps that are deeply unrepresentative of the electorate.
The good news is that the Supreme Court has the chance to take a major bite out of extreme gerrymandering this fall when it hears Gill v. Whitford, an appeal of a landmark decision striking down a Wisconsin state assembly map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.
In Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers drew the lower house map in secret, behind closed doors, with no input from Democrats. The result was a huge and disproportionate advantage for Republicans, at odds with Wisconsin’s status as a swing state. In 2012, Republicans won 60 of the 90 nine seats in the Wisconsin Assembly, despite winning only 48.6 percent of the two-party statewide vote; in 2014, they won 63 seats with only 52 percent of the statewide vote.
The problem isn’t limited to Wisconsin. Consider what has unfolded in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. These two states are vibrant examples of American democracy at work—with close, hard-fought statewide election campaigns for every office from president to state auditor. But when it comes to Congress, the situation shifts dramatically. On Capitol Hill, Republicans hold a seemingly impermeable 13-to-5 advantage in the Pennsylvania delegation and a 10-to-3 advantage in North Carolina’s. All told, a recent Brennan Center study found that extreme maps in these and other states account for at least 16 and maybe 17 seats in the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. That’s a sizeable chunk of the 24 seats Democrats would need to regain control of the House in 2018.
The “Big Sort” is not to blame. Precinct-level returns from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina show a lot of light reds and light blues spread over large swaths of territory—a purple America not reflected in the eventual legislative maps. In Texas, most of the bias similarly comes from carefully dividing up Democratic voters in places like purple Harris County, which includes Houston and its environs.
Our study found ominous signs that these extreme gerrymanders are becoming much more effective and pernicious. Historically, the impact of gerrymandering tended to dwindle over the years, as voters moved, population changed, and legislators retired. Today, gerrymanders have proven tough enough to survive both pro-Republican and pro-Democratic election cycles. In states like North Carolina and Texas, the victims have often been underrepresented and fast-growing communities of color who have been cynically targeted for partisan gain.
Although the courts have sometimes been hesitant to interfere with the political process, it turns out the problem is manageable. It doesn’t rear its head everywhere and, when it does, it usually appears in places with a few key characteristics: single-party control of the mapping process and a roughly evenly split electorate. Indeed, extreme gerrymandering in a few mostly purple states accounts for almost the entire problem. Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania jointly accounted for at least seven to ten extra Republican seats in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Texas account for most of the remaining net gains in Republican seats.
Likewise, other studies suggest that less than a dozen state legislatures exhibit signs of extreme gerrymandering. In all but two cases, the problem seems closely linked to single-party control. (In the two exceptions, New York and Virginia, the opposing party had the power to block a bad map but didn’t, a sign perhaps of a broken politics of a different sort.)
When the Supreme Court last considered partisan gerrymandering in the mid-2000s, the justices were divided and could not agree on a standard for policing partisan gerrymandering. Since then, the problem has only gotten worse. With another round of redistricting just a few years away, the time for the high court to act is now. There is no more urgent issue for American democracy.