Voters in places like deep-blue Massachusetts may not think a whole lot about gerrymandering, even if the practice was born in Boston. After all, it’s a thing that usually goes on in GOP-controlled state houses in places like the Deep South or the Rust Belt. But the chaotic dysfunction orchestrated by House Republicans that has paralyzed Congress for the better part of a year couldn’t have happened without gerrymandering. That crisis only underscores why it’s everybody’s problem.
A key example: The congressional career of Republican Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio couldn’t have happened without gerrymandering.
If the salamander-shaped Boston district approved by the Bay State’s eighth governor, Elbridge Gerry, is how we got the word “gerrymander,’’ the district that protected Jordan’s political future could have been called a “sitting duck’’ due to the way it’s strange-looking boundaries resembled Daffy at rest.
It was a clear gerrymander, and a federal court in 2019 ruled it so. But the US Supreme Court allowed it to stay in place through 2022, giving Jordan strong protection from the political winds of a swing state. The map has since been redrawn, doing away with Daffy, but the damage was done. Because of that map, Jordan, one of the architects of the plot to subvert democracy on Jan. 6, 2021, has been brought to the cusp of a House speakership.
As former US Attorney General Eric Holder succinctly put it in a post on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter: “Gerrymandering enables the elections of extremists and election deniers — and Jim Jordan’s congressional career is the product of extreme map manipulation in Ohio.’’
The Supreme Court appears disinclined to do anything about it, if last week’s oral arguments in a challenge to the gerrymandered district of fellow House chaos agent Representative Nancy Mace is any indication. Mace is among the Republicans who voted to oust former speaker Kevin McCarthy and then threw vocal support behind Jordan. Yes, she’s the one who inexplicably donned a scarlet “A’’ shirt on Capitol Hill, unwittingly demonstrating why the GOP’s concerted bid to ban books in schools is so unfortunate.
In recent years, Mace’s once reliably red district in South Carolina became a lot more purple. After Mace barely eked out a victory in 2020, state Republicans sought to protect that seat by moving about 30,000 Black voters out of her district and into the nearby district of Representative James Clyburn, the only Democratic district in that state. That made Mace’s margin of victory in 2022 much wider.
It also made a unanimous federal district court panel declare the redrawn map to be an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.
South Carolina Republicans appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the changes were not predominately motivated by race but rather by partisan considerations. After all, the Supreme Court ruled that while racial gerrymanders are verboten, federal courts don’t even have jurisdiction to consider challenges to partisan gerrymandering, the practice of rigging congressional maps to favor a political party.
Problem is, in districts like Mace’s, the Venn diagram of a racial gerrymander and a partisan gerrymander often looks a lot like a circle. And that gives gerrymanderers the perfect ruse, as Leah Aden, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund who represents those challenging the district map, argued to the justices last week.
“If you’re asking whether there is direct evidence that the Legislature admitted in the 21st century that they sorted voters on the basis of race as a means to achieve their political goal, no, we do not have that,’’ Aden told the justices. But, she argued, the court does have evidence that the map drawers used racial data, evidence that was enough for a lower court to deem the map unconstitutional.
That didn’t seem to be enough for Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who said a ruling in the challengers favor would mean the court would have to rely on circumstantial evidence — and the court has never before sanctioned such an approach.
“I’m not saying you can’t get there,’’ Roberts said, “but it does seem that this would be breaking new ground in our voting rights jurisprudence.’’
If Roberts and the court’s other conservative justices follow through with the hints they dropped during arguments, it’s bad news not just for those who live in gerrymandered districts, but for all Americans who believe in free and fair elections. Not only will GOP state legislatures be allowed to continue the incredibly antidemocratic practice of drawing maps to ensure that Republicans will win, but they will also often be given judicial cover for doing so by diluting the voting power of Black Americans, Indigenous people, and other racial groups who are less inclined to vote Republican, and then calling it a partisan gerrymander.
The result is minority rule. And as the GOP House caucus has proven, it can’t rule.
Kimberly Atkins Stohr is a columnist for the Globe. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @KimberlyEAtkins.