The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider whether gerrymandering — the process in which one political party uses its power to draw odd-shaped congressional or legislative boundaries to give it an advantage at the next election — is unconstitutional.
Given the specifics of the case out of Wisconsin that will be heard, some predict a potentially fundamental change in the way American elections are conducted if the high court puts the kibosh on gerrymandering.
But the ruling, either for or against gerrymandering, won’t make a significant difference to Washington state. The way congressional or legislative boundaries are drawn in Washington is done in a bipartisan way regardless of whether Democrats or Republicans control the state Legislature.
Frankly, the approach could serve as a model for how to do it right if the court demands reform.
Washington state uses an independent, five-member commission — two Republicans, two Democrats and a bipartisan nonvoting chairman — to draw the election boundaries following the Census that takes place every 10 years.
The members chosen for Washington’s most recent commission are highly respected. For example, members include former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, a Republican, and Dean Foster, a Democrat, who served as chief clerk of the House and former Gov. Booth Gardner’s chief of staff.
The independent commission process seems to work. Washington’s lines were redrawn after the 2010 Census without a major meltdown or even a kerfuffle.
No, it’s not a perfect system but it’s far better than allowing a majority political party to keep a stranglehold on its power by essentially including enough voters in most districts so its candidates will win election and re-election.
Gerrymandering, of course, is nothing new. It’s been going on since about the time elections began. It finally got a name in 1821 when Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry approved for political reasons redrawing a boundary that resembled a salamander — therefore it was labeled Gerry-mandering.
The practice, although always looked at as shady, has nevertheless survived.
Washington Post writer Robert Barnes noted that “the Supreme Court has long been tolerant of partisan gerrymandering — and some justices have thought that the court shouldn’t even be involved.”
Yet, the current court agreed to hear the Wisconsin case in which the state’s Republican leadership in 2011 pushed through a redistricting plan so partisan a lower court ruled it violated the First Amendment and equal rights protections.
It will all be interesting to watch from Washington state where the political boundaries aren’t likely to impact by the high court’s ruling, regardless of which way it goes.