It’s a really big deal that Clarence Thomas joined the majority in the ruling against the North Carolina Republican’s toxic gerrymandering that took a very close state and created this lopsided map.
In short, the majority said that you can’t pack all of the minorities into small misshapen districts even if they are predictably of one party. (The NC GOP losing argument was that they weren’t discriminating on the basis of race, just of party). This is going to have great resonance throughout the South where Republican state houses have gerrymandered their states to death to push their advantage. In NC the result was a state that Trump won by 3 points, that elected a Democratic governor, returned 10 members to Congress while the Dems. could only get 3. Those red districts are separated so each one has a reliably winnable GOP advantage with 55 to 60% GOP registrations, while the 3 blue districts are chosen with “surgical precision” to have 80-90% Democrats. Ultimately it’s a huge toxic assault on democracy itself. As the Greensboro News & Record noted:
In 2014, Democrats won 44 percent of the congressional vote but only 23 percent of the seats, pushing the Republican advantage to 10 of 13 seats, where it remains.
Many of these districts are so dominated by Republicans that Democratic candidates don’t even run. Thirty percent of North Carolina’s state Senate districts and 48 percent of its state House districts had only one candidate on the ballot in 2016.
With only an interparty rivalry to worry about, Republican candidates differentiate themselves by moving further to the conservative right. In these safe districts, it becomes easier for elected officials to ignore the wishes of their constituents, Republican as well as Democratic.
But what of Wisconsin, another state where Republicans have taken partisanship to a new level and gerrymandered their state on partisan, but not racial, lines? Mother Jones addresses the difference and how upcoming cases might shake out.
This is just as important as race. Districts should be as neutral as possible, in fact, our entire democracy is put in danger when districts are made so reliably partisan that they become noncompetitive and predictably safe.
In the case of Wisconsin, the argument against such partisan division will be based on the first amendment and the minimization of the voices of the state’s Democrats.
If there is a ray of hope for voting rights advocates, it’s that while most gerrymandering cases are premised on the 14th Amendment’s equal protection guarantee, the Wisconsin case was decided largely on First Amendment grounds. Specifically, the court found that the Republican Legislature had minimized the impact of Democratic voters in the state, a form of retaliation against their 1stAmendment right to freedom of association. Put another way, the district court found that the Legislature had minimized the voting rights of citizens based on their party affiliation or voting history, a form of discrimination based on their expression and association.
Is it too much to ask that courts (if not legislatures) see that democracy and justice are only served by neutral districts that allow ideas and policy to be the main factors that politicians compete on rather than just flying the gang colors red or blue?
Fingers crossed for democracy.