At the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court closed its term with two decisions that yielded profound political implications. Marc Meredith, Associate Professor of Political Science, explains that by blocking a census question about citizenship and ruling that states—not federal judges—should police partisan gerrymandering, the court has done a great deal to influence party power in the coming years.
Based on data from the federal census, revising boundaries for congressional and state legislative districts takes place at least every 10 years and will next occur after the 2020 elections. Partisan gerrymandering refers to drawing these boundaries to benefit one political party over others. Thanks to the court’s decision involving two prominent gerrymandering cases—one from Maryland and one from North Carolina—whichever party wins control of the political institution that draws districts in a state will be able to lock in an oversized share of seats for an entire decade without fearing federal intervention.
“Look at state maps and see how they chop up their counties and all the odd twists and turns the districts take. Look at Maryland and North Carolina. Those are not nice, neat shapes—they’re contorted.”
In Maryland, Democrats redrew lines to eliminate one of the state’s two Republican seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In North Carolina, Republicans suppressed Democratic power with a map often regarded as the most aggressively partisan in the nation. Lower courts struck down both states’ maps, but the Supreme Court justices ruled that it was not within their jurisdiction to limit lawmakers’ ability to craft districts that benefit their political party.
“The issue with the court’s involvement is that if they were to rule that a gerrymander’s intent were so partisan that it violated someone’s constitutional rights, they’d need to have some sort of remedy to apply, and there just hasn’t been a workable system for this,” says Meredith, who joined 30 other political science professors in signing a brief supporting the appellees.
Technological advances have made gerrymandering far easier than it used to be, with sophisticated software and access to terabytes of voter data enabling legislators to maximize their party’s electoral prospects without facing any repercussions. This concerns Meredith.
“There are no real constraints on what a party can do, and the results are visible,” he says, emphasizing that the ruling pertained only to federal courts and that state courts can still litigate gerrymandering cases. He thinks having some judicial oversight is a good thing. “Look at state maps and see how they chop up their counties and all the odd twists and turns the districts take. Look at Maryland and North Carolina. Those are not nice, neat shapes—they’re contorted.”
The spotlight on gerrymandering intensified over the last decade because Republicans dominated in the 2010 elections and therefore controlled the redistricting process in significantly more states than Democrats. Meredith predicts that partisan gerrymandering will persist through the next round of redistricting but expects it will be less consequential.
“Currently, it seems unlikely that either major party will do as well in 2020 as the Republicans did in 2010. Thus, even though there will be partisan gerrymandering, it will not be nearly as one-sided as it was the last time,” he says.
A same-day decision barring a question about citizenship from the 2020 federal census relieved many people who were frustrated by the court’s ruling on gerrymandering. The census is a national head count whose outcome serves as the basis for political districting. The Trump administration had asserted that using it to obtain citizenship data would help with the enforcement of minority protections outlined in the Voting Rights Act—a claim the justices rebuked.
“The administration’s explanation was weak—the court had a problem with their rationale rather than with the citizenship question itself. There are no examples of them trying to enforce that provision of the Voting Rights Act since Trump came into power,” Meredith says. “There is also evidence that what they actually want is to allow states to redistrict not on basis of equal population, but instead on the basis of having equal numbers of citizens.”
Although census forms will not address citizenship after all, many people are worried that immigrant populations have been scared out of participating and that inaccurate head counts will result. If this happens, states with large noncitizen populations will lose both congressional representation and federal funding.
The Census Bureau oversees many different surveys and has ways to estimate noncitizen populations beyond the decennial census, and Meredith believes it will move to do so.
“I expect the Supreme Court will rule shortly about whether it is constitutional to use these estimates to construct congressional and state legislative districts based on citizen population instead of total population,” he says. “The impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in the census case will be much greater if the they rule that these estimates cannot be used to draw district than if it rules that they can.”