Is drawing a voting map that helps a political party illegal? Only in some states
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
A recent ruling by a North Carolina court has put a spotlight on this fact about U.S. democracy. Some states allow voting districts to be drawn in ways that make elections less competitive and deliver a victory for one political party. This practice is known as partisan gerrymandering, and there are legal battles being fought in state after state. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang explains.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: When there's an election in your voting district, which political party is more likely to win? The answer can be set when the borders of your district are redrawn after a census. That's because, says Kathay Feng of the advocacy group Common Cause, when we're talking about partisan gerrymandering, what's at stake is...
KATHAY FENG: Whether people who go to the ballot box are casting a ballot where there are actual choices or if the outcome is already rigged.
WANG: That's why Feng's group was part of a major lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. It was called Rucho v. Common Cause.
FENG: For several decades, people in the states had held out hope that the Supreme Court would lay down a standard for finding that partisan gerrymandering had happened.
WANG: But in 2019, Chief Justice John Roberts announced the ruling by the court's conservative majority.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN ROBERTS: We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.
WANG: The high court punted the issue to the states.
MICHAEL LI: After the Rucho decision, people asked me whether I was depressed or not, and I said no - disappointed but not depressed.
WANG: Michael Li is an attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU's Law School, who points to efforts to fight off partisan gerrymandering at the state level. There are independent redistricting commissions that are replacing politicians and state laws that ban favoring a political party when redistricting. It's all part of a patchwork of policies that determine how much partisan politics can drive the redrawing of voting maps.
LI: While you might be able to partisan gerrymander to your heart's content in Texas, you can't in New York. And that's a very uneven playing field.
WANG: That field was put in the spotlight by a recent unusual ruling by the North Carolina Supreme Court. After last year's midterm elections, Republican justices took over that state court's majority from Democrats. And last month, the new Republican majority reversed the court's earlier decision that found partisan gerrymandering violates North Carolina's constitution.
THEODORE SHAW: The facts didn't change, and the only thing that did change was an election, which changed who was in control of the court.
WANG: Theodore Shaw, a law professor at the University of North Carolina, says it can be hard to break the grip of partisan gerrymandering on democracy in this country.
SHAW: Because the point is to put one party in control of drawing maps in a way that leaves very little opportunity for political change.
WANG: One potential change could come from the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices are weighing a case that could prevent any state court from reviewing a congressional map approved by state lawmakers. Jonathan Cervas, a redistricting expert at Carnegie Mellon University, is concerned the justices could end up leaving few solutions to protect voters.
JONATHAN CERVAS: They cited different states' ability to use state courts to police partisan gerrymandering. Now this case comes along and threatens the very mechanism that the court has explicitly said is available.
WANG: That case may end up getting thrown out soon, but the U.S. Supreme Court could decide to pick up a similar redistricting case out of Ohio. Cervas points out, there's also Congress, which could pass a law that limits partisan gerrymandering. And in the meantime, it depends on where you live.
CERVAS: And it depends on whether the state court where you live is willing to protect your rights.
WANG: Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.