Will Supreme Court draw the line on where political lines are drawn?

Posted at 6:24 PM, Jun 19, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-19 18:25:22-04

WASHINGTON (CNN/WXMI) — The Supreme Court will take up the most important gerrymandering case in more than a decade, it announced Monday.

The case involves district lines in Wisconsin that challengers say were drawn unconstitutionally to benefit Republicans. The case could have a major impact on how district lines are drawn up nationwide.

Erika King, political expert at Grand Valley State University, told FOX 17 that this case has the potential to be a "game changer."

While the high court has suggested states can unconstitutionally draw legislative districts primarily to benefit one political party, King said, the point at which states cross the constitutional line has never been specified.

"It's going to be breaking new ground," she said. “This is very unusual for the court to get involved in partisan gerrymandering. It has large ramifications."

This will be the biggest and most important election law case in decades, Josh Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law who specializes in election law and voting rights, told CNN.

"The Court rules will affect elections for years to come," he said.

Gerrymandering, a old political art form "as old as the United States itself," King says, is the idea of drawing  district lines by structuring them geographically so that they benefit one party or another.

Redistricting happens every 10 years to reflect population changes recorded in the census. The law requires districts have roughly the same population, and while the geographic shape of the district can run the gamut, it must be contiguous.

"That is, you can’t have a district in southeast Michigan that also is part of a district in northwest Michigan," King said. "They have to touch, but they can touch very, very tenuously.”

The political party in charge at the time of the census gets to call the shots on where the lines are ultimately drawn.

Some suggest the most extreme examples of partisan gerrymandering can be found in states like Michigan, where Republicans have maintained majorities in the congressional delegation and the state legislature even though Democrats tend to win more votes.

“We’re one of the states where there has been advantage taken of the possibility of partisan gerrymandering," King said.

“We have now five members of the U.S House of Representatives who are Democrats and nine who are Republicans, and yet when you look at more of the voting patterns… what we can see is that, given how the vote tends to turn out, the Republicans do have, at the moment, an advantage.”

But King also suggests Republicans' advantage might also stem from their utilization of something known as the "efficiency gap."

“What you want to do is not just to advantage yourself, you also want to spread out your district so that you don’t have 100 percent of your political party in a district," she said. "You want to have just enough to have a majority in a bunch of districts, but you want to get the opposition to be packed into a smaller number of districts.”

Both parties have engaged in and benefited from the practice, which has only advanced with technology.

"We’ve gotten better at gerrymandering with the aid of computers and all sorts of digitized maps and very specific information about where all the different population segments are located," King told FOX 17.

The court — after orders were released — issued a separate order granting Wisconsin's request to freeze the current maps until the Supreme Court hears the case next term. The order was 5-4. This move is a victory for Wisconsin.

This is the second time justices have acted on gerrymandering this year.

Earlier this year, justices sided with Democrats and civil rights groups who challenged North Carolina maps, arguing that they unnecessarily packed African Americans into two districts. This made it easier for African Americans to re-elect incumbents to those two seats, but diluted their votes in surrounding areas.

"A federal three-judge panel rightfully held that Wisconsin lawmakers drew maps for the benefit of their own political party, with little regard for the will of the voters," said Paul Smith, vice president of litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center, who will argue the case before the Supreme Court.

"Partisan gerrymandering of this kind is worse now than at any time in recent memory. The Supreme Court has the opportunity to ensure the maps in Wisconsin are drawn fairly, and further, has the opportunity to create ground rules that safeguard every citizen's right to freely choose their representatives."

In February, a group pushing for redistricting reform in Michigan launched a petition drive to get the issue on the 2018 ballot.

FOX 17's Josh Sidorowicz contributed to this report.