A Year Of Scrutiny For Redistricting

Sep 24, 2017
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How political boundaries are drawn is getting a lot of scrutiny this year. Many voters say they're tired of gerrymandering, which they say dilutes their political power. The Supreme Court will hear a redistricting case next month that could change the way district lines are drawn nationwide. NPR's Sarah McCammon looks at the battle shaping up around the country.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Last month, during a debate on the North Carolina House floor, a visiting baseball team fresh from a stinging loss in the Little League World Series became an object lesson.

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DEB BUTLER: What if we had told those children, boys do the best you can but you're going to start six runs down. And you're going to bat left-handed, even if you're a right-y. And you're going to have to hop on one foot to first base.

MCCAMMON: State Representative Deb Butler compared North Carolina politics to a rigged game. Butler, a Democrat, urged her colleagues to vote against approving newly drawn legislative district boundary maps.

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BUTLER: That's not fair. So in life, in sports and in politics, the public expects a level playing field.

MCCAMMON: The maps were created under the direction of Republican leaders after a panel of federal judges ruled the old system underrepresented black voters. Many Democrats argue they're still unfair.

Race is also an issue in Texas, where an ongoing case looks at whether congressional and legislative districts were unfairly drawn to dilute the power of Hispanic voters. Brendan Steinhauser is a Republican strategist in Austin. He says gerrymandering is a bipartisan problem that hasn't yet been solved.

BRENDAN STEINHAUSER: Until it is, I think you're going to see elected officials at the state legislature draw maps in a way that benefit their own political party. But I do think that most Republicans here in the state would say that does not equate with the idea of intentional racial discrimination.

MCCAMMON: In Wisconsin, the Supreme Court is weighing whether Republicans unfairly drew the maps along partisan rather than racial lines. Rick Esenberg is a Republican and President of the Wisconsin Institute For Law And liberty, which filed an amicus brief in the case. He says the current maps favor Republicans because of what he calls a natural disadvantage for Democrats - the fact that their voters tend to live in urban geographically-compact areas.

RICK ESENBERG: We see this every time after every presidential election when there's a map of the United States which shows results by county. And we see that the United States looks like a sea of red with patches of deep blue.

MCCAMMON: Esenberg says asking the courts to fix that would just force them to get involved in political decisions that he says should be left to the legislature. The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Wisconsin will have implications for ongoing litigation in other states, including Maryland, where Republicans accuse Democrats of gerrymandering.

Michael Li is senior counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center For Justice. He says the Supreme Court has long held that racial gerrymandering is out of bounds. And it now has a chance to rule that partisan gerrymandering is, too.

MICHAEL LI: That's a really big thing because, right now, a lot of people feel that they can get away with anything they want if it's politics and not race.

MCCAMMON: In a country where race and politics are increasingly intertwined, Li says the court's decision could have big implications when states draw new maps after the 2020 census. Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

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