The U.S. Supreme Court should super-charge state attacks on gerrymandering | Opinion

(Kelley Minars/Flickr)

By Micah Sims

If there is one thing Americans can agree on, it is that our vote is sacred. We vote to shape a better future for our family, community, and nation in every level of government, from school board to president.

Why then do so many politicians want to silence our vote? Both Democratic and Republican state legislators across the nation have proven themselves incapable of putting the voters’ interests ahead of their own when they draw congressional and legislative maps.

The practice, known as gerrymandering, is as old as the Republic, but looks very different in our data-driven digital age. Partisan map-makers use scientific data to pack supporters of the opposing party into as few districts as possible to limit their clout or spread them out over several districts to dilute their power.

That’s why in Pennsylvania, we have been fighting to improve our redistricting process through an independent commission, better district criteria, and increased transparency and public input provisions. All in all, 17 states impose greater checks and balances on redistricting, including seven states that empower citizen commissions to draw congressional maps.

Yet millions of Americans raise families and pay taxes in states and districts where their votes are diluted – or worse. Gerrymanderers make it impossible to recruit candidates or campaign volunteers in many places. Incumbents sail through uncontested races, beholden only to party bosses and special interest donors, not ordinary voters.

On March 26, the U.S. Supreme Court will have a historic opportunity to stop this discrimination based on political expression. Oral arguments are scheduled in two court cases – one about a blatant Republican gerrymander in North Carolina and another about a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland.

In deep purple North Carolina, Democrat and Republican turnout is about 50-50, but voting maps favor the GOP, consistently handing Republicans 10 of the state’s 13 seats for the House of Representatives. Maryland, on the other hand, is turning a deeper blue thanks to a map that connected parts of the DC suburbs with rural areas of the state.

The high court should strike down gerrymandering and declare the practice illegal and unconstitutional nationwide. A definitive decision will accelerate people-powered movements to put mapping in the hands of impartial citizens rather than self-serving politicians.

In Pennsylvania, our districts are drawn behind closed doors by elected politicians with little to no public input or consideration of public values into the final maps.

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission is made up of the four majority and minority leaders of both houses and a fifth person who is typically appointed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The commissioner meets privately to draw the state house and senate maps without considering public input or widely held values, such as racial equity.

Our Congressional map is drafted through legislation and passed by a majority vote of both houses plus the governor’s signature.  In 2011, the congressional maps were so gerrymandered that when the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania sued, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the map, and when the legislature was unable to pass a map by the deadline, appointed a special master and drew the map itself.

Pennsylvanians deserve better.

Such Organizations as Common Cause, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, Fair Districts PA, Committee of Seventy, and many others are working to improve our redistricting process by passing redistricting reform that will put a stop to politicians picking their voters in our state and give everyday Pennsylvanians a voice in the map-making process.

To be sure, the politicians in power will not give up gerrymandering without a fight and we will keep fighting until we put a stop to gerrymandering.

But this is the year to unrig the system. In our country’s history, there has never been a moment in which the U.S. Supreme Court appeared closer to stopping gerrymandering. The Justices must finally recognize that only their action can prevent highly scientific gerrymanders from depriving all Americans of fundamental democratic rights.

A definitive decision by the high court is the revolutionary change we need to so that Americans can hold elected officials accountable in all 50 states on Election Day.

Micah Sims is the executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania. He writes from Harrisburg.

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