U.S. Supreme Court pets the gerrymander

Right now, Texas doesn’t have a congressional district map to use in the 2012 election.

In the Lone Star State, the Republican-controlled legislature did indeed draw up a map. Predictably, it sought to maximize the number of Republican-leaning seats. Both parties play this game when they get the chance. But lately, those indulging in the gerrymander have become decidedly more blatant about it.

Texas is one of nine states where federal courts review election maps because of sordid histories of discrimination. A court took one look at the Texas map and said, “Unh-unh.” The court concluded that map discriminates against the state’s burgeoning Hispanic population.

So judges drew up new lines they thought would work better to uphold the constitutional principle of “one person, one vote.”

Recently, though, our U.S. Supreme Court drop-kicked the corrected map back down to Texas, saying, “Try again.” Do a map, the court said, that shows far more deference to the Texas legislature’s original plan, and the “public policy” judgments supposedly embedded in it.

Are the justices really that naïve? That map reflects only political goals, not policy judgments.

Or is the ideological cabal that runs our nation’s high court doing once again as it did in the horrific Citizens United decision? (That’s the one that gave us those unaccountable mudslinging machines known as superPACs. )

In other words, has the court once again used airy, clueless statements of principle – that time, about money as speech; this time about state’s rights – to cloak a naked power grab by conservative businesspeople and the pols who do their bidding?

The Republican strategy to lock down the White House and Congress this year, called RedMap, is brilliant, legal and disturbing.

Step One: Flood the 2010 legislative elections in key swing states such as Pennsylvania and North Carolina with SuperPac money, buying ads that made moderate Democratic candidates look like Jack the Ripper, and earned the GOP majorities. Check.

Step Two: Having taken over state legislatures, push through a congressional election maps that wildly favor your team. Check.

(While you’re at it, also push wildly hyped claims of vote fraud to back up a push for stricter voter ID regs, which have the effect of depressing Democratic turnouts. And be sure to put bills in the hopper that address hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, just to remind evangelical voters of the stakes.) Check.

Step 3: As was done in Pennsylvania, introduce a bill to change the way your state allocates its electoral votes in the presidential election, moving from winner-take-all to awarding votes by congressional district. Since you’ve just gerrymandered those districts to your advantage, you’ve also begun to gerrymander the presidential election. Check.

The Democrat running for president usually wins Pennsylvania, thanks to massive majorities in a handful of urban districts. This change, if approved, would turn Pennsylvania from a 20-vote win for Barack Obama in the Electoral College to something like a 12-8 win for the GOP candidate.

It’s brilliant strategy, and it’s all legal, all blessed by the Supreme Court.

Of course, this is a Supreme Court dominated by the same justices who showed their partisan colors in the Bush v. Gore decision in 2000.

I’m not suggesting that if Democrats would be less piggish and partisan if they had the same control over the slope of the election playing field as Republicans do now with their statehouse and Supreme Court majorities. The Dems might well be just as bad; come fall, I’m sure their use of superPACs will also be full-throttle and disturbing.

But for this election year, the GOP has seized strategic hold of many of the levers that decide which way the playing field tilts. And they are exploiting that grip. It would be wise to pay attention.

Addendum: Kudos to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, not usually one of the shining lights of American jurisprudence, for bestirring itself to question the level of gerrymandering in Pennsylvania’s map for state legislative districts.  The court’s ruling last week overturning the map that came out of state GOP’s computer labs has thrown the April primaries into a tizzy, but that’s a worthwhile price to pay if it means we’ll get a map that does less to split municipalities up among two, three and four different legislative districts.

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