Opinion: SCOTUS turns blind eye to partisan gerrymandering

Jocelyn Benson

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided partisan gerrymandering was no longer their concern. In a 5-4 vote, the majority overturned decades of case law, closing a vital door for citizens seeking recourse in states where politicians draw congressional or legislative districts to tip the scales in favor of their political party.

It’s a setback for those who believe voters should choose their leaders, not the other way around. It’s a green light for anyone seeking to rig the districting process to advance partisan interests. And it’s a stark departure from recent near-universal findings of illegal partisan gerrymandering in lower courts.

Ashley Oleson, with the League of Women Voters of Maryland, carries signs of Maryland's districts, as nonpartisan groups against gerrymandering protest in front of the Supreme Court, Wednesday, March 28, 2018, in Washington.

In May, a federal court in Michigan ordered that our current state House, state Senate and U.S. congressional districts be redrawn after voters successfully proved the districts were gerrymandered to predetermine a partisan outcome. A few weeks later, a federal court in Ohio reached a similar conclusion, echoing previous decisions in Maryland, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. These decisions all produced strong records and sound legal bases to determine legislators drew lines in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court merely could have disagreed with and overturned the legal conclusions of all these federal courts and stopped there. But the majority went one step further, holding that the claims of excessive partisanship were, in and of themselves, outside the scope of what the court had the capacity to determine.

This was unprecedented. As Justice Elena Kagan noted in her dissent, “For the first time in this Nation’s history, the majority declares that it can do nothing about an acknowledged constitutional violation because it has searched high and low and cannot find a workable legal standard to apply.”

Importantly, the court’s decision didn’t eliminate all claims challenging the constitutionality of legislative and congressional districts. All congressional and legislative districts still must have an equal number of residents. That means that when legislators draw districts, they cannot crowd too many voters in one district and dilute their voting power.

Jocelyn Benson

Racial discrimination in redistricting is still illegal, too. In drawing boundaries, legislators cannot pick and choose voters solely on the basis of their race. In some cases, they also must ensure that they don’t draw districts in a way that prevents minority communities from having a chance to elect candidates of their choice.

That’s why it’s all the more important that Michigan voters took the process of drawing district lines out of the hands of politicians and placed it squarely in the hands of our citizens last fall.

Michigan now has a chance to lead the country in demonstrating that citizens drawing districts in an open and transparent process is the best solution to ensure impartial and fair districts. Our Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will be composed of 13 Michigan voters – four Republicans, four Democrats and five independents, randomly selected by eligible voters who apply to serve. The group will begin drawing districts in fall 2020 that will go into effect for the 2022 elections and beyond.

The work of our department now is to actively engage all our citizens in our first citizen redistricting cycle, a process that – if fully funded by the legislature – will lead to fair districts for all. We call on all who care about our democracy to join us and hope that all eligible voters throughout our state will apply to serve on the commission and be a part of drawing Michigan’s future.

Jocelyn Benson is secretary of state of Michigan.