“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections. With respect but deep sadness, I dissent.”
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote this firm criticism of her peers on June 27th, 2019, when the Nation’s Highest Court laid down a pivotal 5-4 ruling in favor of one of America’s democratic erosion issues. Rucho v Common Cause was presented to the United States Supreme Court on March 26th, 2019. The case was presented alongside others but was regarded as the most pertinent of the three. Rucho v Common Cause and its associated cases sought a definitive answer to what has long been a relevant question of the U.S. political process. Gerrymandering can be defined as the intentional act of redrawing electoral district lines in such a way that benefits a political party over its rivals. It has been pointed at by many as a definitive flaw in how politics are handled in America. Partisan gerrymandering has been shown in several cases to suppress and even nullify voters at every level of the election in the U.S. The court ruled that they couldn’t impede partisan gerrymandering on a federal level and the decision is left to the states. Therefore, the 2019 Rucho v. Common Cause decision of the United States Supreme Court to condone partisan gerrymandering essentially legalized a widespread form of voter suppression. It actively worsened the ongoing erosion of the United States democratic process.
The practice of gerrymandering can be traced back to 1812 when its namesake, then-Governor of Massachusetts Elbridge Gerry, signed a bill that redistricted Boston in a way that strongly favored his Democratic-Republican party. The partisan district was said to resemble a salamander, and therefore the district coined the name gerrymandering.
Though gerrymandering has been in practice for quite some time, it seems to have grown and led to more significant issues today, commonly known as partisan gerrymandering. Two critical tactics for gerrymandering are “cracking” and “packing”. Cracking refers to getting rid of as much of the opposing party’s supporters from a district. This will force the opposite party not to have a significant enough vote in certain districts, and therefore not becoming the majority of those districts. An example of cracking may take place in an urban and suburban area, assuming both would have opposing votes, cracking in the city would better the chance of the suburbs getting majority votes. Packing is concentrating the opposing party’s voting power in a district away from other districts, so this may create an uneven ratio against the opposite side. By combining both tactics, this can allow the party who is initiating the gerrymandering to win small majorities in many districts, and another to win large majorities in very few districts.
The practice of partisan gerrymandering has been a fiery debate topic long before 2020, but last year’s cases and the discussions it raised could not have come at a better time. The debate on Georgia’s redistricting process was reignited in 2018, amidst a general election that ran rampant with voter suppression and deletion. And of course, our most recent nationwide general election for the U.S. Presidency was decided not by the popular vote but by the Electoral College and by extension. These state-level delegates were pledged to respective candidates due to partisan-drawn lines.
In Ozan O. Varol Stealth Authoritarianism , the importance of electoral laws is highlighted, and practices like gerrymandering can pose threats to the laws and affect the voting process.
“Electoral laws regulate the conditions under which voting will occur, the qualifications for appearing on the ballot and obtaining legislative representation, the method for aggregating individual votes, and a host of other decisions with significant consequences.[…] But magnanimous-sounding interests like fairness and stability can also mask more insidious and anti-democratic purposes.”
Is gerrymandering masking an “anti-democratic purpose? In the ways explained by Varol, it very much is. In San Juan County, Utah, for example, U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby demanded that the county redraw voting boundaries to account for the voices of the Native American population who were half the county population. The request was rejected and viewed as “racial gerrymandering.” Whether rigged to guarantee white votes or minorities and other races, gerrymandering removes fairness and stability from the democratic process of voting.
In the Supreme Court’s majority ruling on Rucho v Common Cause, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “Excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust. But the fact that such gerrymandering is ‘incompatible with democratic principles,’ does not mean that the solution lies with the federal judiciary. We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” This is extremely worrisome. By acknowledging the dangers of partisan gerrymandering and still choosing to allow it, Chief Justice Roberts and his fellow majority are enabling the U.S. Federal Government to dismantle our political process and to continue to erode the idea of democracy in America.
This is a very interesting analysis of Rucho v. Common Clause. I agree with you that practices of gerrymandering can play a significant role in democratic erosion. Partisan divide has already contributed to the growing divide in the U.S. and certainly affects voting rates as well as political participation. I also believe that gerrymandering poses a risk to democracy and negatively affects voter turnout. There seems to be a lot of disagreements among the courts; however, as the highest court in the United States, the Supreme Court should take on the task to make a decision and defend democratic values which it is also meant to represent. The three branches of government were implemented as checks and balances to ensure fairness and prevent abuse of power. Because of that I agree with you that the decision of the Supreme Court is allowing undemocratic political tactics that are a risk to the country and play their part in eroding American democracy.