Rucho Revisited: 5 Takeaways on the 5 Year Anniversary

On the fifth year anniversary of Rucho v. Common Cause, we reflect on the five most important takeaways from the decision, its impact, and the road ahead.

Rucho v. Common Cause 

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court issued one of the most detrimental decisions for democracy. In Rucho v. Common Cause, the Court ruled that partisan gerrymandering is a political question beyond the jurisdiction of federal courts – that is, federal courts can do nothing to stop political parties from manipulating voting district boundaries for their own advantage.


What was it all about?

Rucho began in 2016 when Common Cause challenged North Carolina’s congressional map in federal court. Despite Republicans receiving 53% of the statewide vote, they secured 10 of 13 seats. 

In the same opinion, the Supreme Court also decided Lamone v. Benisek, a challenge to a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland. In that case , Democrats obtained 65% of the statewide vote but claimed 7 of 8 seats.

On the fifth year anniversary of this landmark decision, we reflect on the five most important takeaways from the decision, its impact, and the road ahead.



1. Partisan Gerrymandering Has Gotten Worse

Immediately following the ruling, Common Cause anticipated a dangerous wave of gerrymandering, a fear that has materialized across the country. As Common Cause details in our CHARGE Redistricting Report Card, states in which legislators draw districts were plagued with a lack of transparency, disinterest in community testimony, and partisan manipulation of districts. A statistical analysis of states using several measures of partisan gerrymandering found that some of the worst offenders in the 2010 cycle – like Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin – somehow managed to score even worse on some measures in the 2020 cycle. The intentional manipulation of electoral district boundaries undermines the will of voters, violates fundamental principles of democracy, and disempowers millions of Americans. With the highly competitive 2024 election just months away, addressing gerrymandering is essential to ensuring that democracy remains intact and every American has an equal voice.


2. Legislators are Using Rucho as a Shield to Cover Up Racial Gerrymandering

The Rucho decision created a loophole for legislators in states where they control the redistricting process, allowing them to engage in racial gerrymandering under the guise of targeting the opposing political party. 

This defense played out in the recent Supreme Court case Alexander vs. South Carolina Conference of the NAACP (2024). In a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld a congressional map that discriminated against the state’s Black residents. The majority accepted the legislators’ argument that their intent was to affect partisan leanings within the district, which, according to Rucho, falls outside the jurisdiction of federal courts.

This ruling sets a troubling precedent. Now, it is permissible to discriminate against a community of color’s voters registered under one political party behind the mask of “partisan politics.” By allowing partisan gerrymandering to serve as a cover for racial discrimination, the Court has jeopardized decades of racial equality and voting rights.


3. Gerrymandering Systems Crack as Public Pressure on Legislators Intensifies

In the wake of Rucho, legislators have done everything they can to protect their redistricting power, but we are beginning to see cracks in their defense. In the modern era of redistricting, it has been nearly impossible to get legislators to curb their own power. However, growing awareness and public pressure now means that politicians can no longer ignore the demand for equitable representation.  The movement for fair redistricting is gaining momentum across the country:

  • Virginia: In 2020, significant public pressure and bipartisan concerns led to the implementation of redistricting reforms in a state without a ballot initiative. These reforms created judicial oversight that led to significantly improved maps when a hybrid citizen-politician commission deadlocked.
  • New Mexico: In 2021, the New Mexico State Legislature passed legislation creating the Citizens Redistricting Committee, an advisory body tasked with gathering public input on communities and recommending maps to the legislature. Communities of color – particularly Native Americans – made significant strides in maps drawn during the 2020 cycle  because of the committee’s willingness to take public input seriously.
  • Los Angeles, California: In 2022, a scandal in which Los Angeles City Council members used racist language during redistricting conversations sparked tremendous public outrage. Thanks to years of public education about independent redistricting commissions (IRCs) and the resounding success of California’s statewide commission, the city council responded by placing a measure on the November 2024 ballot to create an independent commission empowered to draw city districts . This move, supported by California Common Cause, is a direct response to public demands for fair representation.

This growing movement highlights the importance of public involvement and continuous advocacy in the fight for fair redistricting.


4. State Courts Have Stepped Up

In Rucho, the Court ruled that state courts could still strike down partisan gerrymandering under state law. As a result, state courts have played a crucial role in combating partisan gerrymandering across the country:

  • Alaska: The Alaska Supreme Court struck down a gerrymandered map and ruled for the first time in the state’s history that partisan gerrymandering violates the Alaska Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause. The resulting map was less partisan and kept together a Native Alaskan community seeking to avoid being divided between two Alaska Senate districts.
  • Maryland: In the 2021 cycle, the legislature proposed congressional district maps that were initially vetoed by the governor. Although the legislature overrode the veto, state courts ultimately rejected the maps as unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. This appellate court ruling was the first in the state’s history to state that partisan gerrymandering violates the Maryland Constitution. In response, both the governor’s advisory commission and the state legislature began a more transparent redistricting process. They took public input and released interactive maps, which were passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by the governor.
  • New Mexico: On January 6, 2022, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham signed all New Mexico redistricting plans into law. Soon after, New Mexico Republicans filed a lawsuit challenging the congressional map, claiming it was a partisan gerrymander. In July 2023, the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that extreme partisan gerrymandering violates the New Mexico Constitution. The map was ultimately upheld, but these new standards will ensure greater protection for New Mexicans in future redistricting cycles.

These states have joined others in banning partisan gerrymandering under their state constitutions. You can read more about how individual states have responded to partisan gerrymandering in our Community Redistricting Report Card.


5. People are Fighting For Reforms

Across the country, people are rising to the challenge of fighting gerrymandering through a variety of reforms, including litigation, grassroots initiatives, and support for IRCs. These diverse efforts are gaining momentum:

  • Ohio: The Citizens Not Politicians campaign in Ohio is set to submit signatures shortly to place an initiative on the November ballot, aiming to replace the current partisan process with an independent commission.
  • Oregon: In Oregon, the state legislature draws congressional and state legislative districts, subject to gubernatorial veto. Redistricting reformers are currently exploring options for a 2026 ballot initiative to create an independent citizens redistricting commission in Oregon.
  • Nebraska: Organizers are talking with communities impacted by the 2021 redistricting process and looking at reforms that could be implemented between now and the next map drawing cycle for a 2026 ballot initiative to create an independent redistricting commission.

There is no one-size-fits all solution to gerrymandering. Each jurisdiction must adopt the best reforms to fit their unique circumstances. The process may not be perfect, but persistent and determined efforts are essential to achieve a fair and democratic system where every voice is equally heard and valued.