The partisan gerrymandering cases that could shape the future of Southern politics

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to hear arguments in two cases related to partisan gerrymandering this week, people rallied outside to call for an end to the practice. (Photo by Victoria Pickering via Flickr.)

The 2018 midterm elections resulted in a surge in turnout for Democratic voters across the South, but the increase in Democratic participation didn't translate directly to an increase in Democratic power because of gerrymandering — the drawing of electoral district lines to benefit one party or racial group over others.

But gerrymandering is facing an unprecedented challenge, with two landmark lawsuits over the practice now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.

This week, the high court heard arguments in cases challenging the congressional maps drawn by Republicans in North Carolina and by Democrats in Maryland. The Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights advocacy group, calls those states' maps "among this decade's starkest examples of extreme partisan gerrymanders."

Federal judges had previously struck down North Carolina's Republican-drawn congressional maps as unconstitutional racial gerrymanders that diluted the power of black voters by packing them into two congressional districts. But in redrawing the maps for the 2016 election, the Republican-controlled General Assembly engineered them to ensure that the GOP would control 10 of the state's 13 congressional seats.

State Rep. David Lewis, who led the latest redistricting effort in North Carolina, said he drew the maps that way only "because I do not believe it's possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats." The lawsuit filed over those maps is titled Rucho v. Common Cause.

Showing that the maps are functioning as intended, 48 percent of North Carolina voters chose a Democrat to represent them in the U.S. House in the 2018 election, but Republicans held on to their overwhelming advantage in the state's congressional delegation. The GOP currently controls eight of the state's 11 congressional seats, with elections set for later this year to fill vacancies in the state's 3rd District, where Republican Rep. Walter Jones recently died, and the 9th District, where the Republican win was thrown out amid charges of manipulated absentee ballots.

The Supreme Court also heard arguments this week in Lamone v. Benisek, a case out of Maryland that accuses Democratic lawmakers of unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering. Democrats who controlled the state's redistricting in 2011 increased their 6-2 hold on congressional seats to 7-1 and helped unseat a 20-year Republican incumbent by adding thousands of Democratic voters to Maryland's 6th District.

During oral arguments in the cases, the Supreme Court justices appeared to be divided on partisan redistricting. The conservative majority did not dispute that extreme partisan gerrymandering is a problem but questioned whether judicial intervention by the Supreme Court is the solution.

"Have we really reached the moment, even though it would be a big lift for this court to get involved, where the other actors can't do it?" asked Justice Brett Kavanaugh, referencing the states.

The liberal justices seemed more responsive to the argument that extreme partisan gerrymandering undermines the basic principle of one person, one vote. "Does one person have one vote that counts equally with others if the impact of her vote is reduced based on her party affiliation?" asked Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

This isn't the first time a partisan gerrymandering case has landed at the U.S. Supreme Court. Last year the court had a chance to rule on a partisan redistricting case out of Wisconsin, but it opted out of making a decision and instead sent the case back to a lower court. With the North Carolina and Maryland cases, the justices have another chance to establish a standard for determining unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.

Allison Riggs with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice in Durham argued the North Carolina case before the Supreme Court. If the justices fail to act, she said, they would back up the legislature's belief that the court would "implicitly endorse unfettered partisan manipulation in redistricting by declining to rein in this most egregious example.

The court is scheduled to announce its decision in both cases by the end of June.