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The Supreme Court and state votes on gerrymandering could shape the 2020 election
Sara Fitzgerald, left, and Michael Martin, both with the group One Virginia, protest gerrymandering in front of the Supreme Court on March 28 in Washington Jacquelyn Martin/AP

In the coming weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court will issue its opinion on the legality of gerrymandering, the widespread practice of redrawing congressional districts with a bias toward one political party. And while the court is focusing on cases from Wisconsin and Maryland, the opinion will have far-reaching effects for the entire nation’s future elections.

While gerrymandering typically benefits Republicans — as is the case in the upcoming Wisconsin decision — the Maryland case in front of the court concerns gerrymandering with a Democratic bias, allowing the impending decisions to affect both sides of the aisle.

Whatever the outcome of the Supreme Court cases, however, states across the country are already taking steps to institute a more fair redistricting process ahead of the 2020 census, particularly through proposed ballot measures that will let citizens decide their state’s fate.

“There’s never been robust reforms ever introduced like what we’re seeing,” Josh Silver, director of nonpartisan anti-corruption group Represent.Us, told the Washington Post.

Americans are broadly opposed to gerrymandering, suggesting that the current rash of ballot measures could have positive results. According to a bipartisan study released in September 2017 by the Campaign Legal Center, 73% of respondents did not want any partisan bias in how districts are drawn, even if it benefits their own party. Both sides of the aisle were similarly opposed to gerrymandering, with 74% of Democrats, 73% of Independents and 71% of Republicans all opposing partisan maps.

The changes could signal serious consequences for future elections, especially in some of the swingier states and congressional districts below:

Utah

The Utah government officially OK’d a ballot measure Tuesday that would overhaul the state’s redistricting process. If the proposed measure passes in November, Utah will establish a seven-member independent redistricting commission to draft the state and congressional maps, which must then be approved by the state legislature. The commission would be prohibited from drawing maps to benefit any particular politician or political party.

Colorado

Colorado has also made a spot for gerrymandering on the November ballot. After passing both chambers of the Colorado legislature with unanimous votes, two measures will be on the November ballot to overhaul the state’s redistricting process.

Under the proposed measures — one of which concerns congressional redistricting and the other state legislative redistricting — Colorado voters, rather than lawmakers, will have the final say in the state’s redistricting. Each map will be ultimately determined by a 12-person panel divided evenly between Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated voters, who will be chosen via a lottery. At least two-thirds of the panel will need to approve the map, including at least two of the unaffiliated voters.

Missouri

Missouri voters will likely be able to vote for redistricting reform on the ballot this November as part of the CLEAN Missouri Initiative, which garnered almost double the number of required signatures earlier in May. The initiative would establish a process in which a nonpartisan expert would draw the legislative maps, which would then be approved by a citizen commission.

In addition to its redistricting proposal, the CLEAN initiative would also take on corruption in politics by eliminating lobbyist gifts, requiring politicians to wait two years before becoming lobbyists, lowering campaign contribution limits and requiring that the legislature operate under an open records law.

Ohio

While most state’s measures will be on the November ballot, Ohio voters already had their chance to approve redistricting reform — and they did. In the state’s May 8 primary election, voters approved a measure that will overhaul the redistricting process in one of the nation’s top seven most gerrymandered states. Under the new rules, which were approved in a 75% to 25% vote, state lawmakers will still draw the district maps, but will require the new map to be approved by at least 50% of the minority party.

The new process will take place starting after the 2020 election, though a new lawsuit could see the process begin sooner. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in May following the ballot measure’s passage, which argues that the current gerrymandered congressional map violates the First and Fourteenth Amendment, as well as Article I of the Constitution. The outcome of the lawsuit will likely heavily depend on the Supreme Court’s impending gerrymandering ruling.

Michigan

A more contentious fight over a redistricting ballot measure is playing out in Michigan, where a measure is facing a legal challenge to keep it off the ballot. The complaint argues that the measure, which would establish an independent redistricting commission, makes too many changes to the state Constitution to qualify as a ballot proposal.

The ballot measure has received more than the required number of signatures, though the Board of State Canvassers cancelled a planned Thursday meeting to certify the signatures, citing the ongoing litigation. Michigan’s Bureau of Elections has recommended the board certify the petition despite the court challenge.

Despite the lawsuit and the Board of State Canvassers’ objections, Michigan voters also appear to be in favor to a redistricting change. A May survey conducted by Michigan State University’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research found that 53% of respondents were in favor of the anti-gerrymandering initiative.

In addition to the ballot measure fight, Michigan’s League of Women Voters and other Democrats have filed a lawsuit alleging that the state’s congressional and state legislative maps unfairly benefit Republicans. The case is scheduled to go to trial in February.

Arkansas

Arkansas voters could potentially see a redistricting measure on their November ballot as well, as State Attorney General Leslie Rutledge certified a proposed ballot initiative on May 23 that would revise the legislative redistricting process. Rutledge previously refused to consider it and nearly 70 other proposals that had been submitted since 2016, until ultimately being required to do so by the Supreme Court.

The proposed ballot measure, which would amend the state constitution to establish a “Citizen’s Redistricting Commission,” must now garner enough signatures by July 6 for a chance to make it onto the ballot. The measure could potentially find widespread support; according to a private poll conducted by Little Rock attorney David Couch, who proposed the potential ballot measure, 64% of those polled supported the idea of the citizen’s commission.

Pennsylvania

The fight over partisan gerrymandering has already been raging in Pennsylvania, where the state Supreme Court ordered the state in January to redraw its congressional map, a new version of which was unveiled in February.

Now, state legislators are hoping to determine how the state’s redistricting will fare in the future. A redistricting bill underwent its first consideration in the Pennsylvania Senate on May 23 after passing unanimously in committee. The legislation originally proposed a citizen’s commission to take up redistricting efforts, but was ultimately amended to propose an 11-member committee of state lawmakers. The committee would be made up of four Democrats, four Republicans and three independents, and a map would have to be approved with at least seven votes, requiring bipartisan compromise.

Though it’s unclear how the legislation will fare in the Senate and in the House, where past redistricting bills have ultimately failed, the legislation could find bipartisan support. Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, the legislature’s top Republican, said in a speech in May that he hoped to see the redistricting process overhauled, though he acknowledged the process would be a challenge.

“Taking politics out of drawing congressional boundaries is like taking salt out of the ocean,” Scarnati said, as quoted by WITF.