WASHINGTON D.C. — On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in two landmark redistricting cases that could fundamentally change the future of American democracy.
Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, is the lead plaintiff-appellee in Rucho v. Common Cause. We argue that North Carolina Republicans violated the U.S. Constitution through an extreme partisan gerrymander that all but silenced Democratic voters.
In North Carolina, the vote is split roughly equally between Democratic and Republican voters, but the Republican-controlled state legislature deliberately drew a 2016 congressional map to maximize the GOP advantage. As Republican David Lewis, chairman of the state House committee on redistricting, famously said: “I propose we draw the maps to give an advantage to 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats.”
The blatant partisanship was meant to distinguish the map from an earlier map that was struck down as an unconstitutional racial gerrymander, and to lock down the same 10-3 split in House seats. And it did just what was intended with scientific precision, handing the Republicans 77 percent of congressional seats with just 53 percent of the votes.
Voting rights legend Emmet Bondurant, lead counsel in the Rucho v. Common Cause, characterizes the facts this way: “The case presents the most extreme, overt, and brutal partisan gerrymander this Court or any court has ever seen.”
Common Cause is asking the Court to declare partisan gerrymandering illegal and unconstitutional nationwide once and for all. A decision is expected by June. If the Court rules with Common Cause, it will send a clear signal to map-makers that going forward they must draw fair maps that give candidates a fair shot to compete.
“Gerrymandering was once a political insider game that few knew about, but today people are demanding to have their voices heard,” said Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn. “The Supreme Court needs to be on the right side of history and stop politicians from infringing on the people’s right to freely choose their representatives through voting.”
Rucho v. Common Cause is consolidated with a second case challenging the North Carolina map, Rucho v. League of Women Voters of North Carolina. While Common Cause argues the 2016 map violates the Constitution by burdening the political expression of Democratic voters and by nakedly dictating the outcome of elections, the League also argues that the map hampers political association.
“Gerrymandering dilutes the power of voters, makes it harder to organize volunteers and raise money, and pre-determines election outcomes. It is the bane of our democracy and must end,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina.
“The Court now has a huge opportunity to assert that, once and for all, politicians cannot choose their voters—voters must be free to choose who they want to represent them,” said Virginia Kase, CEO of the League of Women Voters. “Reigning in the worst cases of partisan gerrymandering would make huge strides in restoring voters’ faith in the electoral process. Voters must know their votes make a real difference and that they are not just used as pawns in a political game.”
Following the Rucho case on the redistricting docket is Lamone v. Benisek, which was originated by a Common Cause member. Plaintiffs argue that Maryland Democrats violated the First Amendment rights of Republicans when they redrew a congressional district to flip it from Red to Blue.
Going into Tuesday, the North Carolina and Maryland cases have momentum. Lower courts in both cases previously struck down the maps as unlawful partisan gerrymanders. And it is significant that the Supreme Court, which has declined to rule on the merits of any previous partisan gerrymandering cases, agreed to hear cases of Republican and Democratic wrong-doing side-by-side.
“Gerrymandering is not a Democratic problem or a Republican problem, it is a politician problem and a power problem. Politicians cannot be trusted to draw fair maps,” said Joanne Antoine, manager of state outreach for Common Cause Maryland.
Today’s political climate is also in our favor. Five states passed reforms in 2018 to require more checks and balances on redistricting, in some cases following California’s lead and giving citizens – not politicians – the power to draw maps. The Court may also approach the redistricting cases as an opportunity to demonstrate Justices are not ruled by ideology and can put people before politics.
“If the Court sides with politicians instead of the voters, tomorrow’s gerrymanders will make today’s maps look like child’s play,” said Kathay Feng, national redistricting director for Common Cause. “Ushering in a dystopian reality where all elections are foregone conclusions is not going to engender trust in the Court. Ending gerrymandering will.”