The court case that could reshape US democracy

It bears the utterly uninformative title of Veith et al vs Jubelirer (docket number 02-1580). But the case, which the US Supreme Court heard yesterday, deals with the explosive political issue of gerrymandering - and its ruling next year could literally reshape America's democracy.

Veith et al vs Jubelirer involves only Pennsylvania. The state's Democrats have challenged what they say is a rigged and unfair plan to redraw congressional districts, a move approved by Pennsylvania's Republican-controlled legislature after the 2000 census.

But the case's implications are nationwide. At stake is not only control of the House of Representatives in Washington, but the very health of democracy. "This is hugely important," says Sam Hirsch, an attorney for the Pennsylvania Democrats. "Gerrymandering on this scale is corrupting US democracy. This was not what the framers of the US constitution intended."

Gerrymandering is an established American political tradition. Its name derives from Elbridge Gerry, a governor of Massachusetts who in 1811 endorsed an electoral district said to look like a salamander. "Call it a Gerry-mander," a wit said, and the term stuck.

Under the devolved US system, the map of a state's congressional districts is drawn by its legislature - not by a non- political body such as the Boundaries Commission in Britain. Changes are usually made after each 10-yearly national census.

Over the years, partisan gerrymandering has become the norm - traditional spoils for the party which wins control in a state, and then tries to design congressional districts that send the maximum number of its own to Washington.

Democrats have been as guilty as Republicans. But the growing Republican dominance at state level, combined with the wizardry of computers that draw districts to reflect voting patterns down to the tiniest street, has created an unprecedented problem.

By law, districts must be exactly the same size. The idea therefore is to pack as many of the opposing party's votes into as few districts as possible, leaving as many seats as possible in your party's hands. In closely balanced Pennsylvania, Democrats are fighting a scheme which gives a million Republicans control of 10 House seats and the same number of Democrats control of five.

Early this year Texas provided an even more spectacular gerrymandering row, as Democratic legislators fled the state for neighbouring Oklahoma. Their aim was to deny the Republican statehouse majority a quorum to push through a plan to redraw districts that would hand half a dozen Democrat-controlled seats to Republicans. In the end the Democrats cracked and the scheme went through. Only the courts can prevent it taking effect.

Nationally, the consequences of gerrymandering on this scale are disastrous. "Voters no longer choose members of the House, the people who draw the lines do," says Samuel Issacharoff, professor at Columbia Law School.

The House of Representatives is almost ossified. Only 20 or 30 of the 435 seats are competitive. Add to that gerrymandering on the scale of Texas and Pennsylvania, and the Republican majority - a narrow 229 to 206 on paper - is all but impregnable.

Gerrymandering has hastened the polarisation of US politics. The big threat to an incumbent is often no longer in the general election (81 of the 435 Congressmen ran unopposed in 2002) but at a primary, where radical activists dominate. Incumbents thus become more partisan. Moderate Republicans or centrist Democrats, vital for cross-party co-operation, are threatened species.

Which way the Supreme Court will lean is unclear. The 5-4 ruling in favour of George Bush at the last presidential election shows it does not shrink from political decisions.

In the past gerrymandering has been treated as a fact of life, barred only on racial grounds. "But the fact the justices took this case suggests they believe extreme political gerrymandering needs a second look," Mr Hirsch says. "We're cautiously optimistic."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn