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A survey of state gerrymandering cases

The 2010 census, and the redistricting that followed, prompted a series of lawsuits challenging state district maps. As the country approaches the 2020 census and another round of redistricting, we look to court rulings like these to see whether there’s a line in the sand when it comes to political gerrymandering.

Pennsylvania:

Pennsylvania is commonly considered one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. In 2016, Democrats in Pennsylvania won 48 percent of the statewide vote for House elections, but won only 27 percent of the U.S. House seats. Similarly, despite a fairly tight voter split between Democrats and Republicans, the state legislature is also overwhelmingly Republican (59% Republican in the House and 67% in the Senate).

In 2017, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit arguing that the maps created in 2011 packed Democrats into a small number of districts, creating a Republican advantage statewide. In January 2018, the State Supreme Court struck down the 2011 congressional maps, declaring that they violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. The Court adopted a new map in time for the 2018 elections.

In February of 2018, Pennsylvania legislative leaders filed an application of stay, first to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and then to the U.S. Supreme Court; both were denied.

Following the 2018 elections, and the use of the newly created maps, Democrats notably increased their representation in the U.S. House. Statewide, House Democrats received 53 percent of the vote, and correspondingly, the U.S. House seats are now split 9 Democrats, 8 Republicans, and one vacant seat.

Texas:

In 2011, Texas lawmakers redrew their maps utilizing the new 2010 U.S. census data. The data showed an increase in the state’s population — primarily from an increase in black and Hispanic residents – resulting in Texas being awarded four new congressional districts. But when lawmakers redrew the district lines, three new dependable Republican congressional districts emerged, and Democrats gained just one.

The 2011 maps were quickly challenged in court (Abbott v. Perez), where plaintiffs argued that the maps intentionally diluted the strength of Latino and African American voters and violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. A court-ordered temporary map was created in 2012, which was then permanently adopted by lawmakers in 2013. Plaintiffs claimed these new maps were still discriminatory.

A three-judge district court panel ruled that a number of the drawn districts were unconstitutional racial gerrymandered, several districts violated one-person, one-vote requirements, and ruled that the state had unconstitutionally and intentionally packed minority voters in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the 2011 maps. The court ruled that the 2013 plans also maintained the “discriminatory features” of the 2011 plans. The state moved to appeal the decision.

At the end of June 2018, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling and upheld 10 of the 11 protested districts. The exception was Texas’s House District 90, where the court ruled it an “impermissible racial gerrymander.” The Supreme Court’s ruling ensures that all the drawn districts, minus House District 90, will remain in place until the next redrawing after the 2020 census.

“When all the relevant evidence in the record is taken into account, it is plainly insufficient to prove that the 2013 Legislature acted in bad faith and engaged in intentional discrimination,” wrote Justice Alito.

Wisconsin:

In Wisconsin, recent statewide elections reflect a fairly tight split between Democrats and Republicans. In 2012, 48.6 percent of Wisconsin voters voted Republican and in 2016 the Republican vote rose to 52 percent. However, despite these slim margins, Republicans in the state assembly held 60 of the 99 seats in 2012 and 63 seats in 2014.

In 2015, a group of Wisconsin Democratic voters filed a lawsuit (Gill v. Whitford) against the state, challenging the constitutionality of the assembly district maps. The lawsuit claimed that the legislators who made the map essentially made Democratic votes worth less than Republican votes.      

A three-judge district court panel ruled in 2016 that the Wisconsin’s assembly redistricting plans violated the 1st and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling represented the first time in over 30 years that a federal court had struck down a map as an “aggressive partisan gerrymander.”

Wisconsin moved to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on the case in October 2017. The Supreme Court’s ruling was highly anticipated in that it was viewed as a potential first step in striking down up to 20 other redistricting maps across the country.

The Supreme Court justices ultimately remanded the case back to the Wisconsin District Court, challenging the plaintiffs’ standing. This leaves the issue largely unsettled with the litigation likely to continue.


This article is part of a series titled “Redistricting Washington State: How the lines are drawn,” in which we explore the history, implications, and details of the state’s once-a-decade redistricting process. Read more about the series here.