You probably did not think that a key reason why the current Supreme Court is so out of whack with much of America is because of gerrymandering. This is so because the makeup of every Court is determined by the two other gerrymandered branches of government, the executive and legislative.
Twelve of the last fifteen justices have been appointed by Republican presidents, and that is not an accident. With our Constitution, it is virtually impossible not to have partisan Supreme Courts when we choose our presidents and legislators in ways that are mired in a deep gerrymandering pie, or cesspool.
Here’s how it works:
The U.S. Senate is perhaps the most insidious form of gerrymandering that we have. A good working definition of gerrymandering from Merriam-Webster is “the practice of dividing or arranging a territorial unit into election districts in a way that gives one political party an unfair advantage in elections.” At the time that the American constitution was created, there were no political parties. But there were political interests. The most significant of these interests was what powers would individual states have as opposed to the federal government.
For example, who would be responsible for determining whether a road should be built, or whether it would be legal for a sixteen-year-old to drink whiskey? Who would be able to levy taxes, or even tariffs? At the time that the constitution was being written, there were two key interests within the states that created the groundwork for gerrymandering:
- The smaller states such as Rhode Island or Delaware did not want to be overpowered at the federal level by larger ones such as New York or Virginia.
- The states where slavery was legal and was commonly used wanted to have equal power to the states that did not have slavery.
Many of the founding fathers were leery of direct democracy, meaning direct votes by the people. In order to prevent runaway “popular democracy,” the founders created a Senate to go along with the House of Representatives in the Congress. The Senate was undemocratic in two ways, both of which impacted the Supreme Court.
- Initially, Senators were chosen by state legislatures, not the people. This would be a way of better ensuring that the interests of the states, as opposed to the people, were represented in the Senate. This was clearly undemocratic, and in 1917, the 17th Amendment was passed, allowing the people to vote for their Senators. But at that time, “the people” were essentially only white males.
- Each state has two senators. That ensures that there is equal representation among all the states in the Senate. At the same time, it ensures that at least one house of Congress does not include equal representation of the people. For example, California has a population of nearly 40 million people while Wyoming has less than 600 thousand. For each person in Wyoming, there are over 60 in California. What that means in the Senate is that each person in Wyoming has as much power as 60 people in California. That is terribly unfair, and it means that states like Wyoming, the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, etc. have far more power in the Senate than states like California, Texas and New York. The same is true for southern states such as Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina which are relatively small by population. Additionally, these states are no longer politically competitive. Conservative Republicans win virtually all state-wide elections including for the Senators.
Right now, the U.S. Senate is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. But Democratic Senators represent nearly 57% of the population, whereas Republican Senators represent around 43%. If the Senate was democratic, the Democrats would have a large majority. But in today’s real world the Democrats will probably lose seats in the 2022 mid-term election and once again be a minority.
We should also point out that the House of Representatives is gerrymandered in a different way. Take Missouri for example. It has eight Congressional seats. Recently, the state has voted between 50% – 60% Republican. Even at 60%, Republicans should get only five of the seats. However, they get six and some tried to get them seven. Why does it come out this way?
It is because in Missouri the districts are drawn by the state legislature. The Missouri General Assembly is currently veto-proof Republican. What the legislature has done is to draw two “minority majority” districts. This means districts in which some minority constitutes a majority of the voters. In Missouri, it is African-Americans. One district is in the eastern part of the state, St. Louis, and the other in the western part, Kansas City. None of the other districts is competitive.
Similar to the legislative branch, the executive (presidency) is deeply influenced by gerrymandering. The way in which the founding fathers took care of that was by creating the Electoral College. The E.C. is not really a college. It is a barely known organization that only exists every four years, when there is a presidential election. The number of representatives that each state has in the E.C. is somewhat based on population, but not entirely. What is important to know is that when the Electoral College works properly, the electors from each state vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in that state. In other words, the electors in Alabama vote for whomever carried the state and the electors in California vote for whomever won that state.
Where it gets undemocratic is let’s suppose that Candidate A carries Alabama by one million votes and loses California by a 400,000 votes. You might think that Candidate A would be ahead at that point, because she has 600,000 more votes than Candidate ‘B.’ But with the Electoral College, Candidate ‘B’ is ahead with 55 Electoral Votes from California as opposed to Candidate ‘B’ who has the 9 Electoral Votes from Alabama.
The fact that a candidate can lose the popular vote and still be elected president through the E.C. is not just hypothetical. It has happened five times in our history. The two most recent are the two most consequential. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote from George Bush by over a half million votes. However, Bush won the Electoral vote when the Supreme Court made a decision that gave Bush Florida’s electoral votes. That would not have mattered if the decision had been made by the popular vote.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by more than three million votes. However, Trump narrowly won “battleground states” such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and that propelled him to an Electoral victory.
It’s possible that two of our worst presidents ever were elected by the Electoral College than the popular vote. These two presidents are also responsible for five of the current six conservatives on the Supreme Court. Bush nominated John Roberts and Samuel Alito; Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett.
This is how the Supreme Court became impacted by gerrymandering. Without a gerrymandered presidency and a gerrymandered Senate, the Supreme Court would have been more balanced and reflective of the values of the American people.
To make matters worse, the Supreme Court itself has recently refused to overturn the creation of gerrymandered districts by the states.
The political ramifications of the gerrymandering dynamics is that Republicans are helped in all three branches. Theoretically, the three branches of government are supposed to restrain one another through a system of checks and balances. But that does not work when all three branches are dominated by one party, and that particular party is intent on thoroughly dominating government and extending very few levers of power to minority parties.
How can this change? At the moment, it’s difficult to conceive. Trump Republicans have a number of plans to further a radical right agenda in America. For our government to become more balanced it will require challenging victories by non-Republicans in congressional and presidential races. Stay tuned to see if that happens.