Senator John McCain has called on the Supreme Court to protect US elections from partisan gerrymandering, as the justices consider a high-profile case on the issue that could fundamentally change the way American elections are conducted.
The Republican and his Democratic colleague Sheldon Whitehouse said the court has the power through its decision to “return control of our elections to the people”.
“The Court can clean up a cause of America’s crisis in confidence in our democracy,” the senators wrote in a joint statement. “The American people do not like gerrymandering. It leaves them feeling powerless and discouraged; that their votes are wasted and voices silenced.”
This week at the Supreme Court, lawyers for the state of Wisconsin defended a redistricting plan that gave Republicans many more seats in the State Assembly. An attorney representing Democratic voters, meanwhile, argued that the map – pushed through by the state’s Republican leadership in 2011 – was so partisan that it violated the Constitution.
In 2012, after the adoption of the new map, Republicans won 48.6 per cent of the statewide vote but captured 60 seats in the 99-seat State Assembly.
Mr McCain and Mr Whitehouse also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case last month, saying the Democratic voters’ lawsuit against Wisconsin “implicates the effective functioning of American representative democracy.”
The Supreme Court’s consideration of the case comes as members of Congress from both political parties continue to lament how redistricting has become more pervasive and partisan over the last decade.
The gerrymandering has helped create a polarised political environment, some have said, in which Republicans and Democrats struggle to reach compromises on major policy issues such as healthcare and government spending.
As districts become less competitive, people elected to represent those areas in government move closer to their ideological bases and further away from the political centre, the Brookings Institution – a nonpartisan think tank – reported.
While the Supreme Court has never found a plan unconstitutional because of partisan gerrymandering, federal courts have previously ruled that maps that employ “racial gerrymandering” are against the law.
In racial gerrymandering, map lines are drawn to lower the influence of minority voters, who tend to vote in favour of the Democratic Party.
On Tuesday during oral arguments, the justices seemed to agree that voting maps drawn by politicians to give their party an advantage in elections are an unappealing feature of American democracy. However, the conservative justices voiced concern over whether the court could define a standard for determining when the practice was unconstitutional.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, who was appointed by Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate in April, expressed scepticism that the Constitution authorises courts to step in at all.