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History Frowns on Partisan Gerrymandering

On the eve of a major redistricting case at the Supreme Court, a look back at what the nation's founders would have thought.
As the Supreme Court prepares to consider whether gerrymandering can ever be so partisan as to be unconstitutional, some defenders of the practice will contend that its long historical pedigree should immunize it from judicial review. But history tells a different story. Partisan gerrymandering is inconsistent with the democratic ideals enshrined in the Constitution, and Americans since the founding generation have vehemently denounced it. In the extreme form it takes today, with districts drawn to give the controlling party a stranglehold on power, gerrymandering represents an unprecedented threat to our democracy.

The case to be argued Tuesday, Gill v. Whitford, comes from Wisconsin. In 2011, Republicans, with control of the legislature and statehouse, rammed through a legislative map explicitly crafted to guarantee that the GOP would maintain its political power and could not be unseated by the ordinary operation of elections. The plan used sophisticated digital tools to ensure that Democrats could not regain control even if they won all swing districts. It was, in effect, a perpetual-motion entrenchment machine. A three-judge court held the plan unconstitutional.

Partisan gerrymandering — like racial gerrymandering and violations of the one-person, one-vote principle — has occurred at various times in American history. But it has been forcefully condemned as unconstitutional at every turn. Patrick Henry, for example, crafted a district to separate James Madison from his political supporters. But newspapers decried Henry’s scheme as a violation of the right of a free people to choose their representatives. In the action that gave gerrymandering its name, Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry in 1812 signed a districting bill designed to give his party a decisive political advantage. Opponents objected that the law “inflicted a grievous wound on the Constitution” — it “subverts and changes our Form of Government” and “silences and stifles the voice of the Majority.”
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