Two landmark cases now moving through the courts—including an appeal to the Supreme Court—may carry huge implications for the future of gerrymandering in states across the country.
Gerrymandering is the act of dividing up an election area to give one political party a majority of voters in as many districts as possible. It derives from tactics developed by Elbridge Gerry, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention who later ran for office in Massachusetts.
On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to Alabama’s legislative map, drawn by a Republican-controlled legislature after the 2010 census. Oral arguments will be heard in the fall.
Petitioners in the consolidated cases, Alabama Democratic Conference v. Alabama and Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, say the legislature intentionally packed greater numbers of minority voters into fewer districts, thereby increasing their margin of victory in those districts but diluting their overall strength in the state.
“When considering whether it is constitutional to take account of race in redistricting, the law is—and always has been—sensible enough to recognize a distinction between what is reasonably necessary to make voting fair, and what is not,” argued the Democratic conference in a brief submitted to the court.
Luther Strange, Alabama’s attorney general, says the map passes constitutional muster. After all, the 2010 map maintains minority-majority populations in eight Senate districts and 28 House districts—the same map previously approved by Democratic-controlled legislatures and pre-cleared by the Department of Justice under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
That pre-clearance requirement, of course, was struck down last year by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.
Also last year, a three-judge panel on the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Alabama ruled 2-1 in favor of the state’s redistricting plan. Under procedures outlined by the Voting Rights Act, the decision can be appealed directly to the Supreme Court.
Not even a day’s drive to the south, the Leon County Circuit Court is wrapping up its own hearing on Florida’s congressional map, also redrawn by a Republican-controlled legislature in 2010.
The Florida case turns on a constitutional amendment passed by voters that same year. The amendment, which secured 62 percent approval, says districts “may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party.” Yet in 2012, Republicans won 63 percent of U.S. House seats with only 51 percent of the popular vote.
Such results drew the attention of the League of Women Voters, which is leading a coalition of organizations behind the current challenge. They accuse the legislature of conducting a “shadow” redistricting process, parallel to public debate, in which GOP operatives received draft plans from legislative staff and submitted their own maps in return.
The trial has not wanted for drama and intrigue. A map “identical” to one drawn by GOP official Frank Terraferma appears to have been sent to the legislature under the name of Adam Posada, a recent student at Florida State University. Both Terraferma and Posada claim to have no knowledge of the submission.
And the Florida Supreme Court intervened to allow the admission as evidence of several hundred documents from a GOP consulting firm, though only in a closed courtroom. Those documents may shed light on improper partisan activity suspected by the plaintiffs.
To learn more about partisan gerrymandering, watch our recent program with U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.) and Prof. Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School by clicking here.
Nicandro Iannacci is a web strategist at the National Constitution Center.
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