Next week, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Gill v. Whitford, a case challenging Wisconsin’s legislative district lines as an unconstitutional Republican gerrymander. It’s attracted attention because many high-minded commentators have blamed partisan gerrymandering for today’s highly polarized politics — and for the fact that Republicans have won majorities in 67 of the 98 houses of state legislatures and in 10 of the past 12 elections in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But as I and others have argued, gerrymandering has contributed only marginally to Republican success. More important is demographic clustering. Democratic voters are heavily clustered in central cities, sympathetic suburbs, and university towns, while Republican voters are more evenly spread around.
The Wisconsin Democrats want to require districting plans to compensate for this clustering, presumably by drawing long tentacles that stretch from central cities through suburbs and to the countryside. That strategy, followed by Democratic redistricters in Maryland and Illinois, has produced the nation’s most grotesquely shaped congressional districts.
In Gill v. Whitford, Democrats found a favorable three-judge district court, but a five-vote majority of the Supreme Court blocked the ruling from taking effect while the court considers the case.
Unchallenged in this case is the requirement that districts have equal population, which the Supreme Court mandated in Reynolds v. Sims in 1964. Actually, the roots of the equal population requirement go back much further, to July 1787, when members of the Constitutional Convention agreed on clauses requiring that a federal census be conducted every ten years and that each state’s number of representatives in the House be determined by the results of that census.
This was novel, perhaps entirely original. Seats in the British Parliament and in Continental counterparts were never allocated in this way….