When SCOTUS has the chance to “Un-rig” the system

If you can turn your head from the buzz and whir of Trump’s Twitter feed and RussiaGate, you might just notice the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up a case that could have a major impact on the future of American democracy for decades to come. The case, Gill v. Whitford, alleges partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin, with state assembly maps that challengers say were unconstitutionally drawn to benefit the Republican Party.

No, this case doesn’t involve Russian hackers, but here’s why it matters. Partisan gerrymandering is becoming extreme as officials carve up more and more districts, so much so that many elections are essentially decided before you even cast your vote. Courts have pushed back, but until now they’ve never determined how much is too much when it comes to manipulating district lines. And that’s why Gill v. Whitford is set to be groundbreaking.

The case could affect federal and state legislative maps well beyond Wisconsin, potentially changing the way we draw district lines in the future, and limiting the competitive advantage a political party in power can give itself.

To help us mortals understand how all this works, Fusion explored the effects of gerrymandering in our documentary Rigged, winner of the coveted Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and part of Fusion’s investigative Naked Truth series. To make things fun, we also created a complementary mobile game of the same name—Rigged (available on iOS or Android)—where you too can become a political power broker and design districts to steal elections.

But let’s back up. The arcane art of drawing voting district lines to give your party or incumbent an unfair advantage, known as gerrymandering, dates back to the founding of the republic. The term got its strange name after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry drew a salamander-looking district in 1812 to keep his party in power. And since then, both Republicans and Democrats have been skewing maps to win elections, undermining the principles of representational democracy.

Rigged shows how allowing elected officials to handpick their voters disenfranchises millions of Americans and renders Congressional races uniformly uncompetitive—with huge consequences. We focus on the post-2010 redistricting cycle, when the Republican party made gerrymandering a central tenet of its political strategy after losing big nationally in 2008.

Devised by a nonprofit political strategist group called the Republican State Leadership Committee, the plan was called REDMAP, which stands for Redistricting Majority Project. Republicans were able to turn statehouses across the country in 2010 by capitalizing on voter frustrations and by pumping cash into their legislative races. Then, newly elected state legislators redrew the national electoral map in their favor, ensuring Republican control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade. The plan worked brilliantly.

In 2012, the GOP won 49 % of the votes but 54 % of the seats for the House. More than 1.4 million people cast votes for Democrats, but Republicans remained in power. This pattern has repeated itself in state elections since then. In Wisconsin’s 2012 election, Republicans won only 48.6 % of the statewide vote but got 60 of the 99 seats in the Wisconsin Assembly. In 2014 and 2016, they saw even bigger gains, winning 63 and 64 seats respectively, with little more than half of the statewide vote. When you see lopsided victories like these, especially in battleground states like Wisconsin, you know someone likely employed some overly creative map-making skills.

In Rigged, we break down how they do it, with techniques like packing and cracking: either cramming a bunch of your opponent’s voters into a district so they win in that district by a much larger margin than necessary, essentially wasting their votes; or spreading your political opponent’s voters across districts to dilute their power.

“What you have now are big Democratic years that simply don’t matter, that don’t budge the fundamental makeup of these congressional delegations,” says David Daley, the author of Ratfucked, a book that analyzes REDMAP. “And you also have state houses, Wisconsin, Ohio, North Carolina, [and] Georgia, where there is a [Republican] super majority that also is not earned at the ballot box.” This super majority can then pass legislation without having to compromise with Democrats.

Do I think there have been overreaches this cycle in the redistricting? Absolutely, said Chris Jankowski, a political consultant and one of the key players behind REDMAP, featured in Rigged. “And I think that will come around to bite them.”

Seems like it already has—in the courts. A panel of three federal judges in Wisconsin found the district plan for the Assembly was “intended to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters.” The goal of the plan, the judges concluded, was to “entrench the Republican Party in power.” And now that case is going to the Supreme Court.

There have been many other court challenges. Take North Carolina and Florida. Rigged reveals how one billionaire donor in North Carolina was able to change the political landscape there by helping elect state legislators that would redraw the traditionally moderate state’s districts into Tea Party strongholds. These maps were ultimately deemed unconstitutional—but not before being used in two election cycles. In Florida, Rigged shows the lengths to which lawmakers will go to draw partisan gerrymandered districts even when the practice is made illegal by constitutional amendment. The doc also follows leaders like NAACP activist, Reverend Doctor William Barber, who are pushing back against laws enacted by the state’s new supermajority.

Partisan redistricting hasn’t helped get things done in Washington. With fewer competitive races, candidates are no longer accountable to general election voters. The primary election becomes the main event, where often only party members can cast a ballot. And once elected, there is little incentive to compromise.

“When that is what our politics is reduced to—a primary election amongst an activist base with a really low turnout—we get dysfunction,” says Daley. “We get frozen politics, and you get a complete breakdown in the way the system is supposed to work.”

Ultimately, district lines shape not just the physical maps, but just about every issue that affects our lives: from money for education, to how much our birth control costs, to how well our public transportation works, and whether people can carry guns on campuses. The Supreme Court may now have a chance to help fix our broken electoral system, so we’ll be keeping an eye on the Wisconsin case, and its potential impact on the 2020 redistricting cycle and beyond.