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The Supreme Court Is Set to Take on New Gerrymandering Cases

The Supreme Court will once again consider the unresolved question of whether the Constitution bars partisan gerrymandering, agreeing Friday to consider lower court rulings that congressional maps in Maryland and North Carolina were so extreme as to constitute a violation of voters' rights.

This raises the possibility of a historic outcome: The Supreme Court has never ruled that a gerrymandered map was unconstitutional, and it has so far punted on any opportunities to do so.

The court's announcement comes at a time when a majority of Americans appear to be fed up with the influence of gerrymandering (also called redistricting) in the electoral process: A 2017 poll from the non-partisan Campaign Legal Center found that "an overwhelming majority (71 to 15 percent) of Americans want the Supreme Court to place limits on lawmakers' ability to manipulate voting maps." That plurality included 30 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of Republicans, and 68 percent of Independents.

Though extremely important to the electoral process, gerrymandering is a confusing process, and one that many voters don't understand. In a 2016 story for Pacific Standard, writer Steffanee Wang explained the concept of redistricting as such:

Every 10 years after the national census takes place, state legislatures (or independent commissions or individuals—we'll get to that later) are required to redraw state district lines. The idea is to create districts that are roughly equal in population, in order to maintain the spirit of "one person, one vote."

The concept gets much more complicated when the politicians shaping the process try to create districts whose populations will vote for their party; that's where gerrymandering comes into play. The party controlling the state legislature tasked with drawing the redistricting maps can easily manipulate the process to favor their party. They can also create "safe" districts for their incumbents: as time goes on, instead of rearranging the lines to introduce more competition to an incumbent, drawing more insular districts can diminish the likelihood a potential challenger from the opposing party may win.

The retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy will factor hugely into the court's rulings. Kennedy was seen as a swing vote on the issue; his replacement, Brett Kavanaugh, a staunch Constitutionalist, appears less likely to vote in favor of limiting partisan gerrymandering.