Political experts from sea to shining sea are using a lot of big words to describe the possible impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to take up a gerrymandering case.
“Enormous ramifications,” said one. “The biggest and most important election law case in decades,” said another.
Those forecasts may prove to be exactly right. Or, depending on how the court rules, the case may not prove to be quite so ground-breaking. I’m guessing it’s going to be the latter, especially when it comes to the potential impact on a state like Missouri. The reason? These days, many like-minded people end up living near each other.
First, some background: The court is taking up a Wisconsin case in which the plaintiffs say state legislative lines were drawn in ways that benefited Republicans way too much. Their beef stemmed from the fact that in 2012, Wisconsin Republicans got just more than 48 percent of the statewide vote, but they still managed to win a 60-39 seat advantage in the State Assembly.
Most reasonable people concluded that such a disparity was a result of gerrymandered districts that worked swimmingly in favor of Republicans.
The court historically has steered clear of partisan gerrymandering cases. Instead, its focus has been on racial gerrymandering aimed at undercutting the influence of minorities.
But for the first time since 2004, the court is tackling this idea that lust for political advantage can result in the drawing of district lines for both legislative and congressional members that unfairly favors one party over the other. Some Missouri Democrats think this case presents their party an opportunity to get back in the game when it comes to the state’s congressional delegation, which now includes six Republicans and two Democrats, and the General Assembly, where the GOP holds supermajorities in both chambers.
Not so fast.
The problem for Democrats in a state like Missouri is where those Democrats live. In broad terms, they’re clustered in Kansas City and St. Louis. Drawing congressional boundaries that more evenly distribute those Democrats among several districts to make them more competitive is pretty tricky.
Imagine the geometric contortions required to draw lines that, say, have four of the state’s eight congressional districts creeping into the Kansas City area. That would involve more than a little gerrymandering itself.
Republicans have a built-in advantage. They are more evenly spread out across the countryside in Missouri and Kansas.
So don’t hold your breath that a ruling to curtail political gerrymandering would give Democrats new life in either state, and maybe not in Washington, D.C., either. There, House Republicans hold a 240-194 seat advantage.
KU political scientist Burdett Loomis forecasts that a ruling outlawing political gerrymandering could affect a few dozen seats, say 5-10 percent of congressional races.
“That’s not nothing,” he said. It could maybe even swing control of the House. “But the idea that ... this is going to change everything is a false narrative” for just these reasons.
By the way, the science of redistricting is a fascinating one that involves “cracking,” or splitting one party’s voters into several districts to dilute their power, or “packing” where partisans of one party are crammed into as few districts as possible to minimize their impact. Formulas have emerged to provide a quantitative measure of gerrymandering through “efficiency gaps.”
But cracking and packing and a Supreme Court ruling may not matter much in a state like Missouri.