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Editorial: Supreme Court missed opportunity to end partisan gerrymandering

Politicians know it. Party bosses know it. Even the U.S. Supreme Court must know it. But last week, the court fumbled its chance to bat away the knife at the throat of American democracy: partisan gerrymandering. Advocates for reform need to bring a case back to the court as soon as they can.

Constitutionally, states and lower governments must redraw political boundaries after each decennial census to keep legislative districts equal. As populations vary over the course of a decade, those with declining populations wind up with greater representation in their local, state and federal legislatures. By redrawing the lines, the requirement for “one person, one vote” can be maintained.

But while that has long been the constitutional obligation for politicians, their driving force has been partisan: drawing the new districts in shapes that benefit the political parties, allowing them to pick their voters before voters ever get to vote on them. It’s chronic and it’s bipartisan.

Districts have been drawn with just a length of road joining otherwise distant areas. That has happened at the local level, but reached a regional zenith with the infamous “earmuff district” drawn for the late Louise Slaughter.

The Rochester-area Democrat’s district redrawn after the 2000 census to include an eastern population center in Monroe County and a western one covering parts of Erie and Niagara counties. Linking them was a thin band of lightly populated land along the Lake Ontario. It was a political joke.

Gerrymandered political lines are part of a long American tradition in which powerful forces work to rig elections. That was the goal of Tammany Hall, the corrupt Democratic organization once led by the equally corrupt William M. “Boss” Tweed. Tammany Hall no longer exists, but its tainted spirit continues to influence New York State politics.

Rigging elections was also an animating force behind Jim Crow, the set of laws and practices drawn up to disenfranchise and terrorize black Americans in the decades after the Civil War. It’s the purpose of recent voter identification laws, as bluntly acknowledged in 2012 by Pennsylvania’s Republican House leader, Mike Turzai, who crowed that voter ID “is gonna allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

In fact, Romney lost the state to Barack Obama, but Republicans nevertheless say the law helped to depress Democratic turnout.

Together, these efforts, including gerrymandered districts, are the ongoing sin of the American election system. They are the rotten crutch on which partisans lean when they cannot rely on the strength of their own ideas to win elections.

That’s why it is a shame that instead of ruling on this matter, the Supreme Court punted, sending the case back to a Wisconsin court to give the plaintiffs “an opportunity” to document that they had standing to bring the lawsuit in the first place. Perhaps that was appropriate. When the court rules on this, it is important for the case and the precedent it may set to be ironclad.

But it also allows political hacks to continue slicing the country in ways meant to suit their transitory needs rather than to produce legislatures that best reflect their constituencies. That was the opportunity that was lost with the court’s ruling. It’s the one that advocates need to recover as quickly as they can.

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