Gerrymandering heads to the U.S. Supreme Court. Will Madigan map-making survive?

Roughly 30 percent of North Carolina's voters are registered Republicans, but the GOP holds 10 of the state's 13 seats in Congress. How did that happen?

Republicans drew the electoral map, that's how.

As lawmakers huddled to craft the current boundaries, state Rep. David Lewis suggested the goal should be to stack 10 districts to favor Republicans, leaving three to the Dems, "because I do not believe it's possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats," according to a transcript of the meeting.

Lewis didn't bother to disguise the naked partisanship that guided mapmakers' hands, and no wonder. Across the country, brazen gerrymandering has flourished as federal courts shrugged off legal challenges from voters who were cheated by such lopsided maps.

In 2011, a panel of federal judges called Illinois' newly drawn map "a blatant political move to increase the number of Democratic congressional seats" — and upheld it anyway.

That masterful gerrymander prompted Politico to declare that House Speaker Michael Madigan, the state's top Democrat, had "punched his ticket to the partisan hall of fame." It flipped the balance of the state's congressional delegation from 11 Republicans and eight Democrats in 2011 to 12 Democrats and six Republicans in 2013. (Illinois lost one seat because of declining population.)

Courts have acknowledged that extreme partisan mapmaking isn't consistent with democratic principles — one man, one vote, remember? — but they've also recognized that redistricting is inherently political. The majority party can always be counted on to manipulate the maps in its favor. When does it cross the line?

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to make that call, saying it's up to the aggrieved party to propose a constitutional standard that can be applied. The justices have never rejected a map for being too partisan. They will soon have another chance to do so.

On Monday, the justices threw out North Carolina's map — not because it cheated Democrats, but because it cheated African-Americans. A 1995 ruling declared it unconstitutional to sort voters into districts based on race without a compelling reason, such as to promote minority representation under the federal Voting Rights Act. Since then, several maps have failed that test.

Lewis, whom we've come to think of as North Carolina's Mike Madigan, had argued that the GOP's map was acceptable because it's a partisan gerrymander, not a racial one. True, the Republicans had secured their advantage by concentrating blacks into two districts, but mapmakers said they based the decisions on voting history, not skin color. The Supreme Court didn't buy it.

The tactic, known as "packing," minimizes the impact of the targeted voters by containing them in as few districts as possible. The opposite is "cracking" — scattering them into many districts, so their votes never add up enough to make a difference.

Both are employed ruthlessly for partisan advantage. And this fall, they could provide the Supreme Court with the metric it has been asking for to gauge how badly a map is rigged to favor one party.

The justices have agreed to consider whether Wisconsin's State Assembly map violates the 14th amendment's equal protection clause because it was drawn to neutralize the votes of Democrats, depriving them of representation.

The standard proffered by a bipartisan group of voting advocates is a straightforward mathematical calculation. It tallies the number of votes that are "wasted," or assigned to a district in which they could not affect the outcome of an election. A handful of Democrats carved into a Republican stronghold, for example, or the redundant Republicans crowded into a district where half as many would have constituted a majority.

A map drawn without bias would "waste" about the same number of Republican and Democratic votes. The difference, or the "efficiency gap," is a measure of partisan imbalance. The larger the gap, the harder it would be for mapmakers to convince a court that the lines weren't drawn to disenfranchise the opposing party.

That makes sense to us. It made sense to the panel of federal judges whose decision is now before the Supreme Court. We hope the justices are impressed as well.

The current maps were based on population shifts as measured by the 2010 U.S. census — and here we are, still arguing about them in 2017. The Wisconsin case is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to take a stand against partisan election rigging, before the 2020 census rolls around.

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