Why A Wonky SCOTUS Ruling Should Give Democrats Hope

by Jon Hecht
Drew Angerer/Getty Images News/Getty Images

On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling, finding that the state of North Carolina had disenfranchised black voters in how it drew voting districts. This ruling comes on the heels of a similar decision in May that found that two of North Carolina's Congressional districts were racially discriminatory and illegal in their design. Now, Democrats have some hope — and maybe even a blueprint — for how to combat gerrymandering.

In 2016, Donald Trump won North Carolina by only 3.6 percent, and Democrat Roy Cooper won the governor's mansion, but despite this, Republicans managed to hold on to 10 out of 13 House seats, and hold veto-proof majorities in both of the state legislative houses.

"Clearly what's going on is a gerrymander that is motivated by partisan considerations," says Christopher Elmendorf, Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at University of California, Davis School of Law, who studies election law.

However, it's not as simple as just drawing along party lines, Elmendorf notes, with racial concerns overlapping and complicating the issue. "The people drawing the district lines recognize that African Americans are reliable Democratic voters, and they're distributing African American voters in such a way as to achieve a partisan advantage. But the court is saying, 'No, you can't use race in this way.'"

The courts have ruled that gerrymandering based on race is illegal, and court opinions have suggested that gerrymandering based on partisan advantage may be up for debate soon, as well. Elmendorf sees the North Carolina rulings, as well as other cases related to state legislatures in places like Alabama, Wisconsin, and Virginia, as part of the larger potential for change in how the courts view the drawing of electoral maps.

With the courts appearing to now take a harder stance in certain cases against drawing district lines around partisan pockets — a practice largely employed by Republicans in recent years — Democrats could make big gains in 2018.

There are key places that Democrats could take advantage of this change. For instance, Texas' Congressional districts were ruled discriminatory by a federal court in March. The legislature has not convened a special session to fix them, meaning that it could likely be done by the court under more stringent guidelines coming as a result of the decision in the Supreme Court on the North Carolina case. And unlike the North Carolina case, the redraw could happen very soon.

"I would expect a redraw to be in order, and the most likely outcome would be (Latino) Democrats gaining two to three seats there," Stephen Wolf, an elections expert for the liberal grassroots advocacy group Daily Kos, says of Texas in an email to Bustle. He believes that a "fully nonpartisan" North Carolina redraw could lead to up to five seats for Democrats.

The potential of new winnable Congressional seats could have massive impact on the battle for control of the House of Representatives in 2018. Democrats currently hold 193 seats, meaning they need an additional 25 in order to hit a majority in the House at 218.

"This is a good development on the horizon," says Rita Bosworth, founder of Sister District, a grassroots organization that connects Democrats living in safe blue districts with swing districts they can get involved with to make a difference.

Still, Bosworth is cautious about the impact of this, noting that it could take time. "If and when it happens, we will be right there working with people on the ground in the affected areas to figure out where new potential targets might be," she says. "But it's going to take a long time, and it's a process."

But beyond the Congressional races in 2018, the biggest long-term effects of these court cases could be in state legislatures, where many maps are being struck down. Moreover, changes in state legislative maps would not only affect the ability of Democrats to enact policies at the state level, but could impact the drawing of Congressional districts after the 2020, affecting the partisan advantage in Congress for the future.

Nevertheless, while Democratic activists are certainly cheering these results, they're nevertheless keeping things in perspective. "Daily Kos and, of course, the party organizations are monitoring all of these cases," writes Wolf. "But counting on favorable rulings isn't a reliable strategy for success."