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What is gerrymandering, and how does it happen?

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Supreme Court Redistricting

FILE - In this April 4, 2017, file photo, the Supreme Court Building is seen in Washington. In an era of deep partisan division, the Supreme Court could soon decide whether the drawing of electoral districts can be too political. A dispute over Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn boundaries for the state legislature offers Democrats some hope of cutting into GOP electoral majorities across the United States.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court said Monday it will decide whether Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin drew electoral districts so out of whack with the state's political breakdown that they violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters.

What the Republicans did is called gerrymandering, a centuries-old practice of creating legislative districts that favor one party over another. Both political parties do it when they can.


Gerrymandering is the practice of one party packing as many voters of the other party into the fewest districts possible.

The term comes from a Massachusetts state Senate district that resembled a salamander and was approved in 1812 by Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry.

Every 10 years following the census, states redraw the boundaries of legislative districts to account for population changes, so that the number of people living in each district is about the same. The generic term for the process is called redistricting.

States redraw districts for House seats in Congress and for legislative districts in state legislatures. Cities do it for city council districts.

Elbridge Gerry

This photo taken March 20, 2014 shows a portrait of Massachusetts Gov. Elbridge Gerry hanging in a hallway at the Statehouse in Boston. For centuries, politicians have been drawing odd-shaped elections districts in an effort to give one political party an advantage over another. In 1812, the practice got a name: gerrymandering. That year, Gov. Gerry signed a bill passed in the Massachusetts legislature to redraw state Senate district map. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)


The Wisconsin case involves the state legislature. In Wisconsin, the Republicans were in charge so they tried to pack as many Democrats as they could into the fewest number of districts.

This left fertile ground in the rest of the state for Republicans to win more legislative seats.


In most states, the redistricting process is controlled by the state legislature and the governor, which is why state elections at the beginning of each decade are so important. In other states, bipartisan commissions draw districts in an effort to reduce gerrymandering.

Illinois Redistricting

Newly proposed redistricting maps are displayed in the hallways of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., during a Senate Redistricting Committee hearing on the proposed Illinois redistricting map, Tuesday, May 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Gerrymandering has become more precise as computer software has become more sophisticated, enabling map-makers to divide counties, cities and even neighborhoods to maximize their political advantage. The result has been sprawling, odd-shaped districts that might include communities with little in common other than the residents' political affiliation.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that states cannot gerrymander districts in an effort to reduce the influence of minority voters. But the court has never struck down a legislative map for strictly political reasons.


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Reaction to court's decision to hear redistricting case

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court's announcement Monday that it will hold oral arguments to decide whether Republican Wisconsin lawmakers drew electoral districts so out of whack with the state's political breakdown that they violated the constitutional rights of Democratic voters. The court also put on hold any redrawing of maps while the case is pending.


FILE - In a March 8, 2017 file photo, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at a news conference in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer, File)

Republican Gov. Scott Walker spokesman Tom Evenson: "Gov. Walker is confident Wisconsin's redistricting process is constitutional and is pleased to see the Supreme Court take the case."

Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel: "I am thrilled the Supreme Court has granted our request to review the redistricting decision and that Wisconsin will have an opportunity to defend its redistricting process. As I have said before, our redistricting process was entirely lawful and constitutional, and the district court should be reversed. ... The stay is particularly important because it preserves the Legislature's time, effort, and resources while this case is pending."

Wisconsin state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, both Republicans: "Wisconsin lawmakers have maintained that our state's redistricting process and legislative maps are legal and constitutional, and we look forward to the Court's final decision which we are confident will affirm our position."

Plaintiff Bill Whitford: "This is a kind of apportionment scheme that simply denies Wisconsin residents democracy. We're hoping the Supreme Court will release us from this sorry state."

Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, which is representing the voters who challenged the maps: "You would like a situation where the legislative outcomes accurately reflect the actions of the voters. What we have in this situation is a theft of that right by whatever party is in power at that moment to stay in power despite the changing will of the voters."

Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, which organized and launched the lawsuit: "We've already had two federal courts declare the map unconstitutional in part or whole. ... Now this story will be told on a national stage."

Wisconsin Legislature

Wisconsin state Sen. Jennifer Shilling looks on after being re-elected as Democratic minority leader Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016, in Madison. Shilling retained her position as minority leader even though Democrats lost a seat in the election this year, leaving them with their fewest members since 1971. (AP Photo/Scott Bauer).

Sen. Jennifer Shilling, Wisconsin state Senate Democratic minority leader: "Regardless of the outcome in this case, we must remain committed to promoting election fairness, protecting voter rights and preserving our shared democratic values. Democrats will continue to champion non-partisan redistricting reform to empower citizens and restore fairness to our election process."

Rep. Peter Barca, Wisconsin state Assembly Democratic minority leader: "Voters should be able to choose their representatives, not the other way around, and I have faith that the Supreme Court will do the right thing to help end the terrible polarization we see in both Wisconsin and across America."

Rick Esenberg, head of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which filed a brief asking the court to take the case: WILL president and general counsel, on today's decision: "We are confident the Supreme Court, as it has in the past, will decline to insert the judiciary into political questions on whether or not to make up whatever natural disadvantage these maps may confer."

Jenny Dye, research director for liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now: "Wisconsin Republicans have put their own political interests before everything else with their manipulation of the rules on voting to give themselves an unfair partisan advantage."


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