“It’s not a partisan issue,” he said. “We are working for our republic, and not for Republicans.”
Partisan gerrymandering is almost as old as the nation, and both parties have used it. But in recent years, as Republicans captured state legislatures around the country, they have been the primary beneficiaries. Aided by sophisticated software, they have drawn oddly shaped voting districts to favor their party’s candidates.
In the 1980s, when Democrats had more political power in state legislatures, they were enthusiastic proponents of partisan gerrymandering, Mr. Simpson, the former Wyoming senator, said.
“The Democrats laid the groundwork and set the template, and then Republicans figured they better get cracking, too,” he said.
The two parties’ legal arguments have flipped as their power shifted, Professor Fried said.
“The same arguments, exactly, were made on the other side when Democrats were doing this to Republicans,” he said. “This is a prime example that people don’t mean anything that they say, that all arguments are opportunistic.”
These days, both parties are using their power more aggressively than ever, according to a brief filed by 65 current and former state legislators, 26 of them Republicans.
“In recent years, the two major political parties, leveraging the technologies of the modern age, have intentionally and systematically excluded each other from state legislatures like never before,” the brief said. “Democrats rigged the maps in Illinois, Maryland and Rhode Island, while Republicans did so in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.”
The Supreme Court, which has never struck down an election map as a political gerrymander, will consider a case challenging the voting districts for Wisconsin’s State Assembly drawn after Republicans gained complete control of the state government for the first time in more than 40 years.
Republican lawmakers drew maps that helped their party convert very close statewide vote totals into lopsided legislative majorities. In 2012, Republicans won 48.6 percent of the statewide vote for Assembly candidates but captured 60 of the Assembly’s 99 seats.
The phenomenon is commonplace, Mr. Schwarzenegger said.
“It’s a rigged system,” he said. “You have situations where you get 50 percent of the vote but only 35 percent of the seats. That is corrupt. That is incorrect. It’s unfair to the people.”
The plaintiffs challenging Wisconsin’s map are represented by the Campaign Legal Center. Its president, Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, said he was “pleased, but not surprised, – to see many of America’s most accomplished Republican leaders urging the Supreme Court to rein in excessive partisan gerrymandering.”
“They know that elected officials’ legitimacy comes from being freely chosen by voters, not through seizing power from voters to keep themselves in control,” said Mr. Potter, who was appointed to the commission in 1991 by President George Bush.
The challengers say they have identified a mathematical formula to help identify unconstitutional partisan gerrymanders. In a brief urging the Supreme Court to sustain Wisconsin’s maps, the Republican National Committee wrote that the formula was “a tool that advances the partisan interests of the Democratic Party.”
In California and a few other states, independent commissions rather than politicians draw election districts, rather than politicians. That bolsters public confidence, Mr. Schwarzenegger said.
“You see a direct correlation,” he said. “In California, for instance, we did the redistricting reform and the legislators have over 50 percent approval rating, and in Washington they have a 16 percent approval rating.”
Representative Brian Fitzpatrick, Republican of Pennsylvania, joined a brief filed by current and former members of the House of Representative urging the Supreme Court to reject the Wisconsin maps. He said partisan gerrymandering has contributed to toxic polarization in the House of Representatives.
“You have 435 districts in the nation, and there’s probably only 20 or so that are legitimate swing districts,” he said. “For the 415 safe seats, their main election is in the primary, not the general. When the main election is in the primary, you legislate accordingly. The result has been a growing cavernous divide, which has created a Hatfield v. McCoy environment in the legislature, and it’s hurting the American people.”
A brief on the other side from the Republican State Leadership Committee, which represents elected state officials, disputed that analysis, saying there is polarization even when candidates are elected statewide.
“Politics in the United States are polarized and have been for decades for a variety of reasons, and it is highly unlikely that partisan redistricting contributes to this polarization,” the brief said. “If it did, one would expect the U.S. Senate to be less polarized than the House of Representatives, and that is manifestly not the case.”
The brief from current and former House members noted that Mr. Reagan had referred to gerrymandering in 1987 as “a national scandal” and called for “an end to the anti-democratic and un-American practice of gerrymandering congressional districts.”
Mr. Simpson said it was time for the Supreme Court to heed that call.
“This case is long overdue,” he said. “Quite literally, gerrymandering is killing our system. Most Americans think politicians are corrupt, and when they’re rigging maps to pick their own constituents, they’re giving them reason to believe it.”
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