Friday, the Supreme Court granted requests by Republican lawmakers in Michigan and Ohio to block court orders in both states that would require gerrymandered legislative districts be redrawn ahead of the 2020 general election.
Courts in both states declared the current legislative maps to be gerrymandered (drawn in order to favor a particular political party) in an unconstitutional fashion. While by definition gerrymandering is the unfair drawing of legislative districts, it isn’t always unlawful.
Districts in Michigan were drawn with such partisan zeal that one Republican aide said he loved that a district literally looked like it was flipping off its Democratic representative. Michigan Republican politicians were legitimately able to choose their voters.
Despite Ohio being nearly even split in statewide elections, Ohio’s districts are drawn in such a way as to make Democrats only competitive in four of the state’s 16 congressional districts.
Michigan and Ohio both also passed citizen initiatives overhauling the redistricting process, but these initiatives take effect after the 2020 election. As challenges to gerrymandering before the Supreme Court loom, initiatives like those passed by the Great Lakes neighbors have increasingly become the primary approach of redistricting reformers.
The Supreme Court’s decision to halt the decisions in Michigan and Ohio is not wholly unexpected. The Ohio court’s decision was written as an argument for the Supreme Court, which is also considering a pair of cases out of North Carolina and Maryland.
It seems unlikely that the Supreme Court will decide to curtail partisan gerrymandering. It has never gone that far in rulings before, and with the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court lost one of its primary gerrymandering skeptics.
And while Michigan and Ohio will have new processes to limit partisan gerrymandering after the 2020 Census, citizen initiatives aren’t practical solutions in every state. Some states outright prohibit such initiatives. And politically charged elements of the Census itself could impact redistricting to benefit Republicans even in absence of direct partisan gerrymandering.
Unfair legislative district maps have had substantial impact on elections at both the state and federal level, and have benefited the careers of politicians who eventually served in offices elected statewide.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.