By Steven Yang
Landmark Redistricting Cases in the Supreme Court and their Influence on U.S. Electoral Equality
Editor’s Note: This paper was completed as a part of the History Research Fellowship, a one-semester course available to sixth form students.
Student-Submitted Note: This paper was completed as part of the VI Form History Fellowship class, and focuses on the history of the Supreme Court’s involvement in redistricting, the process by which areas are broken up into political districts for each representative to serve. It starts with a summary of the parts of the Constitution pertinent to understand the topic, then chronologically understands the history of redistricting in the context of Supreme Court cases.
The Constitution of the United States begins with “We the People,” a famous phrase expressing the democratic principles of equality and power derived from the people; yet, there lies a dissonance between these principles and contemporary American politics, particularly within elections. Electoral laws can greatly influence results; controversial practices like strict voter ID laws and eliminating the ability to vote early or use mail-in ballots can lower voter turnout and heavily sway elections. One of the most egregious examples of these democratic principles, however, is called gerrymandering. Because state legislatures are tasked by the Constitution to draw districts elected officials represent, politicians can “entrench” themselves in office by drawing maps favorable to them. The process of drawing these districts on a decennial basis is known as redistricting, and redistricting that is aimed to benefit a certain group of people is called gerrymandering. While the most common form of modern gerrymandering is partisan gerrymandering, where politicians draw maps to benefit their party, other types of gerrymandering like racial gerrymandering have occurred in the past.3 At its worst, gerrymandering can be the equivalent of rigging elections. An antithesis to the core democratic principles the United States was built upon, gerrymandering is a flagrant violation of democracy so widespread that it has become synonymous with American life.
Legal challenges to unfair redistricting began in the 1940s, and redistricting has been a routine issue for the court to address up to the modern day. Many cases escalated to the Supreme Court, whose rulings on redistricting can have momentous effects. Early cases through the 1960s largely focused on malapportionment, a form of unfair redistricting where some voter’s voices are diluted because they live in political districts that were much larger in population than others. The court was generally willing to impose more requirements of redistricted maps to ensure equality, like mandating political districts must be roughly the same population. The 1980s to 2000s saw the court rule on other types of unfair redistricting, notably racial and partisan gerrymandering. However, when encountering questions of partisan gerrymandering, partisan bias of the court became increasingly evident. Combined with increased political polarization, the makeup of the consistently conservative courts during at the turn of the 21st century quickly became overwhelmingly partisan, favoring the Republicans who appointed justices in their roles. This represented a drastic departure from precedent and from democratic values as a whole. The court’s decisions are monumental, and by essentially deregulating partisan gerrymandering in recent cases, gerrymandering has become even more widespread than before.
This paper explores the history of redistricting and gerrymandering chronologically, starting with clauses and amendments within the U.S. Constitution that are vital to understanding the abundant litigation that occurred later. Next, it examines the United States’ approach to solving the issue of apportionment; a closely related issue to redistricting that determines how many Congressional representatives each state receives. Finally, the history of apportionment is contrasted with redistricting, answering the question: why can’t a similar solution be found for redistricting?
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Steven Yang is a VI Form boarding student from McLean, Virginia. He loves to learn about history or economics and is active in the St. Mark’s Theater. With a specific interest in elections, Steven hopes to study Political Science or Government in college, with a minor in theater.