Gerrymandering — drawing legislative districts for political advantage — is nearly as old as the republic, but the U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on it except in regard to minorities’ voting rights. It ducked the issue again this week, declining to rule in a pair of cases for technical reasons. But states and voters have an urgent need for guidance before the 2020 Census triggers a wave of redistricting.
The urgency arises because gerrymandering has been turbocharged by technology and partisanship. Mapping software and voter databases allow lines to be adjusted with precision. The widening gulf between the major parties has raised the stakes.
One of the cases rejected Monday arose from Wisconsin, where in 2012 Republicans won 48.6 percent of the votes but 60 of 99 seats in the Legislative Assembly. Guess which party drew the districts?
Yet defining impermissible gerrymandering won’t be easy. Voters gerrymander themselves into like-minded communities, and districts reflecting that may be fairly drawn.
Some states have established non-partisan redistricting commissions. Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson has appointed a committee to study our redistricting process.
Oregon’s current districts were drawn by the Legislature in 2011, when the state House was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Deadlocks in several previous attempts left the job to the secretary of state, whose work has tended to be politically neutral.
Even so, the Legislature and the secretary of state would benefit from a clear court ruling. Oregon can’t presume immunity to what has occurred in other states.