The Pre-Redistricting Wars

redistricting-2018By Jim Ellis

Jan. 23, 2018 — Though we are in the fourth election cycle of the decade, the 2011 redistricting fights are still continuing. The US Supreme Court has been dealing with redistricting cases from five states, but it all could come to a head soon.

The lawsuits first break down into the familiar racial gerrymandering claims, which have been in the courts in some fashion or another since the Voting Rights Act was created in 1965. Currently, the topic of political gerrymandering is hot as both parties are pursuing live complaints against their opponents for drawing congressional and state legislative boundaries to maximize the political standing of one party to the unfair detriment of the other.

The major political gerrymandering case comes from Wisconsin and will likely set the tone for other such suits in Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, and possibly Maryland. Democrats are bringing the action in the first four states, while Republicans are challenging Maryland’s 6th Congressional District.

Obviously, the high court is getting involved to craft a new set of rulings relating to both racial and political gerrymandering before the entire country goes into a 50-state redistricting round upon completion of the 2020 census. Therefore, election results in 2018 and 2020 to establish incumbency both in the House of Representatives and the state legislatures become critically important.

Last week, the US Supreme Court stayed the most recent North Carolina lower court redistricting ruling. The three-judge panel invalidated the maps, determining that majority Republicans engaged in political gerrymandering. In the last election cycle the Tar Heel State boundaries were also re-drawn to remedy what the panel cited as racial gerrymandering reasons, but the Democrats were unable to make a dent in the Republicans’ 10R-3D delegation advantage.

The technical way in which the Supreme Court stayed North Carolina, and the fact that the Justices also stayed the original Wisconsin ruling that nullified the Badger State’s congressional boundaries, gives some GOP redistricting attorneys reason to think that a favorable Republican decision could soon be forthcoming. If the lawyers’ reading of the legal tea leaves is accurate, it means the Wisconsin lines, and most likely those in North Carolina, Michigan, and Texas, will not change for the decade’s final two elections. That would greatly help the Republicans maintain control of the House.

The Pennsylvania situation is still alive and moving on dual tracks. Simultaneously with last week’s North Carolina action, the Pennsylvania panel considering the federal redistricting suit also ruled in the Republicans’ favor. So, too, did the state court considering the political gerrymandering case the Democrats filed there in hope of moving it to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a panel that Democrats now control by a 5-2 majority.

The state case argues that the congressional and state legislative lines violate the Pennsylvania Constitution, and therefore the Commonwealth should invalidate the maps. There is a strong likelihood that this strategy will work, and the Pennsylvania court could well order the lines re-drawn.

If this scenario occurs, the maps will return to the Republican-controlled legislature, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf maintains veto power. Should he reject a new map, the court will then step in and create a replacement. Completing such a process in this described manner would likely mean a 3-5 seat switch in the 13R-5D delegation, and give the Democrats a strong foothold toward attempting to flip US House control. Right now, Republicans hold a 47-seat majority when including the four vacancies with the party of previous control. This means Democrats would have to switch a minimum of 24 seats to earn a new one-seat majority.

Though the situation remains murky as we proceed toward filing deadlines and early primaries, a swift public ruling on the Wisconsin case will likely bring needed clarity to the political situations in the aforementioned states.

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