The United States Supreme Court ruling Thursday morning that federal courts could not issue decisions in cases dealing with gerrymandering has set off a cascade of concern as some have expressed that the inability for federal courts to block maps that include district lines designed to favor one party could damage democracy.
The court ruled that the issue of gerrymandering was a political issue, not a legal one, and therefore should not be handled by the states. The ruling could likely reroute future challenges of district maps to state supreme courts.
Long Beach Congressman Alan Lowenthal issued a statement in the wake of the ruling Thursday stating he was tremendously disappointed in the high court’s decision but vowing to continue to fight for an independent redistricting process.
“I believe that extreme partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional, is counter to the intent of the framers, and is dangerous to democracy,” Lowenthal said in a statement.
“The Supreme Court has now had two opportunities to decide the constitutionality of extreme partisan gerrymandering, punting last year, and now, the majority essentially saying they can’t be bothered.”
The term gerrymander derives from 19th-century Boston where Gov. Elbridge Gerry signed a bill into law that created partisan districts that favored his party over the Federalists. One district in the Boston area resembled a salamander.
Today, gerrymandering has become an increasingly powerful tool for parties in power to remain in power as they use the redistricting process to draw district lines that are demographically favorable to the party. Some critics have said that the process allows officials to choose their voters rather than voters getting to choose their officials.
A number or recent cases have been challenged in federal courts including the two cases (North Carolina and Maryland) that were tossed out by the Supreme Court in Thursday’s ruling.
In the 2016 North Carolina congressional elections Republicans secured 53 percent of votes but won 10 out of 13 seats. The Maryland case was brought by Republican voters that alleged the Democratic-dominated state legislature purposefully redrew districts to unseat a 20-year Republican incumbent.
The incumbent, Representative Roscoe Bartlett won his 2010 election by 28 points but lost in 2012 by 21 points after the lines were redrawn.
Gerrymandering is not endemic to one party, rather history has shown that it occurs with whichever party happens to be in control.
Redistricting is on the national radar as the 2020 Census nears, a process that coincides with district lines being redrawn. The Supreme Court also ruled Thursday that the Trump administration’s explanation of a proposed citizenship question on the 2020 Census was not adequate and sent the issue back to lower courts.
Speculation of the damage such a question could have on getting accurate counts, especially in states like California with large immigrant populations, could lead to losses in federal funding and potentially see those states lose seats in the United States House of Representatives. Unlike the United States Senate, House seats are based on population.
Lowenthal has long advocated for non-partisan commissions to handle redistricting dating back to his days as a member of the California state legislature.
Earlier this month Lowenthal announced a policy essay dealing with the subject of gerrymandering that was published in the Harvard Journal on Legislation. Lowenthal’s essay is titled “The Ills of Gerrymandering and Independent Redistricting Commissions as the Solution”.
In the essay, Lowenthal argues that while the process of gerrymandering districts has provided safe seats for political parties it has disenfranchised voters as politicians are increasingly less accountable to constituents. The result, he said, is that politicians have become more polarized as they play to their bases with little fear of being voted out of office.
These districts are accomplished by “packing” and “cracking”. Packing involves putting as many as one type of voter into as few districts as possible in an effort to dilute their power outside those districts while cracking involves spreading certain kinds of voters across multiple districts.
Long Beach was once a partially “cracked” district as the 46th Congressional district, represented by former Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, spanned from Palos Verdes Estates, connected by a thin strip of Ocean Boulevard, to Costa Mesa.
“It was a block wide, down Ocean Boulevard through Downtown Long Beach and the south side of First Street,” Lowenthal said. “It was the poster child. It was the gerrymandered district.”
Much of Long Beach now falls into the 47th District, which migrated West after the last redistricting effort completed in 2011, an effort that Lowenthal helped lead. While in the state assembly he introduced a measure to create an independent redistricting committee and while in the state senate he helped pass it through that house but it never passed through both.
“It [redistricting] had nothing to do with what was in the best interest of our communities, the state or the voters,” Lowenthal said. “It was ‘How do we get people to win districts? How can my district be made better and yours made worse?’ That was such an abhorrent process that I decided I didn’t really want to be a part of that and I could work to make it better.”
Ultimately, the issue was taken to the polls by voters in 2010 with Lowenthal’s legislation serving as the framework. It garnered over 60 percent of the vote and the resulting redistricting eliminated the “barbell district” that connected Orange County to Palos Verdes and created the one that Lowenthal was elected to in 2012.
His first piece of legislation that he introduced as a member of Congress was the “Let the People Draw the Lines Act.”
It was modeled after the California plan that was eventually adopted by voters. Lowenthal said that he doesn’t see such a piece of legislation advancing in the current congress but he’s hopeful that the egregious gerrymandering happening in some states will spur activists to make change at the local level, something that will make it easier for future congresses to move the ball at the national level.
“I think that what we’re seeing is something that really resonates with activists out there,’ Lowenthal said. “Republican activists think the Democrats are really screwing them and Democrats think the the Republicans are out there screwing them. And those activists are pushing their state legislatures and those legislatures are starting to move in the right direction.”
Long Beach will undergo its own redistricting process after the 2020 Census. The process could change City Council, school board and community college trustee voting districts which could impact future elections. A charter amendment approved in 2018 will create an independent redistricting committee which will be charged with drawing those district lines.
Lowenthal said that for that committee to work it truly needs to reflect the diversity in the communities of the city. It needs to be bi-partisan, the members shouldn’t be planning on running for office and shouldn’t be paid consultants. He said he’s hopeful that the results will be a fairly drawn lines for the city’s future elections.
“Long Beach has such a good history of trying to work out some of these issues,” he said. “It’s got a good record and I’m really proud that they passed it and that they’re going to try and do an independent commission.”