Republicans are already lining up to challenge congressman Joe Cunningham, apoplectic that they lost the 1st District seat last year to a Democrat.
Can’t blame 'em. Used to be when you rigged a district the darn thing stayed rigged.
Cunningham is popular, and he’s the incumbent — with some support even among moderate GOP voters — so most pundits will probably call the 2020 race a toss-up.
But even if Cunningham prevails, don’t count on a third term in 2022. The United States Supreme Court just made sure of that.
Last month, the justices decided 5-4 that federal court isn’t the place to settle grievances over gerrymandered political districts. The court basically overturned cases from Maryland and North Carolina designed to stop hyper-partisan redistricting.
“The highest court in the nation has essentially sanctioned the power of the majority party to control its own political destiny,” says state Sen. Marlon Kimpson. “Big win for Republicans and incumbents.”
He’s right. In most states, whichever party controls its legislature holds sway over drawing congressional districts. And Republicans control 32 states.
Redistricting — or in parlance, reapportionment — has always been partisan. Take Wisconsin, where Republicans won just 45 percent of the votes in 2018 legislative races but took 64 percent of the seats. That’s some fancy drawing, and led to a successful lawsuit by Democrats.
The challengers in North Carolina and Maryland didn’t fare as well, even though both were similar victims of robbery.
After the 2010 Census, North Carolina — already legendary for its creative district-drawing — put on a clinic in gerrymandering. Republicans cast 53 percent of the votes in the Tar Heel State in 2016 and 50.3 percent in 2018. But because of gerrymandered districts, they hold 10 of 13 congressional districts.
That’s 77 percent.
In Maryland, a Statehouse controlled by Democrats did much the same thing. Republicans took 37 percent of statewide votes in 2016 but won only one of the state’s eight congressional seats.
Both states lost gerrymandering lawsuits in federal court, but the Supremes overturned those decisions. And that’s going to make it a lot harder for the minority party in any state to contest rigged districts.
“Historically, people looking for fairness have relied on the federal government and the Supreme Court, so I was disappointed with the decision,” says state Rep. David Mack. “With redistricting, we are trying to find an idealistic way of fairness and balance, but in politics it often doesn’t work that way.”
South Carolina has seven congressional districts and, until Cunningham won, Republicans held six of them — even though nearly 40 percent of the state votes Democrat.
The 1st District was the district Democrats had the best chance to flip because it is drawn to give the GOP only a 10-point advantage. The 5th District, around Rock Hill, has a similar split, but the 1st includes parts of increasingly blue Charleston County.
During the next redistricting, in 2021, expect the state Legislature to move more of Charleston County into the 6th Congressional District — where Democrats are corralled to keep the neighboring districts solidly red.
“Absolutely,” Mack says. “They’re working on that as we speak.”
The Legislature would have done the same even without the Supreme Court ruling, but now they can go more nakedly partisan without fear of a successful court challenge.
Gerrymandering isn’t good for anyone. When the outcome of a general election is all but pre-ordained, it only encourages the parties to choose more extreme candidates in their primaries. As usual, the middle loses out.
Some states are trying to mitigate that by turning reapportionment over to bipartisan or nonpartisan commissions. That’s not perfect, but it’s a start. South Carolina lawmakers proposed a similar measure this year, but it went nowhere. Because, politics.
In his opinion on the North Carolina and Maryland cases, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that even though “excessive partisanship in districting leads to results that reasonably seem unjust,” the court had no constitutional standing to intervene.
Which didn’t stop them during the 2000 presidential election, but that’s another story.
Roberts suggested the remedy to this problem is through politics. In other words, elect folks less likely to rig the game.
That’s easier said than done because the state’s 170 legislative districts are also gerrymandered. And you know who draws them?
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.