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The difference between racial and partisan gerrymandering

The court changes its redistricting criteria depending on the case. Here’s why.

This year, the Supreme Court decided to hear two major cases on redistricting. Each case is about gerrymandering — the process of drawing district lines based on political motivations. But the cases aren't alike. One deals with racial bias, while the other looks into partisan bias.

Redistricting reform advocates got a major boost when they learned that the Supreme Court would hear the case of Gill v. Whitford out of Wisconsin. For the second time in recent history, the Court would tackle the infamous subject of politically motivated redistricting. A previous case from 2016 dealt with a case of racially motivated redistricting in North Carolina.

Districts drawn to influence an election using the criteria of race have to comply with more rules than cases where districts are drawn with partisan criteria alone. This has to do with the protections granted to minority citizens via the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Beyond this, redistricting driven by partisan bias is actually legal. What the courts have struggled to identify over several decades is exactly how much partisan consideration is palatable.

Justices in the past have disagreed on whether partisan redistricting cases are within the scope of the Court’s ability to rule at all. The issue has to do with an absence of a reliable measure for partisan gerrymanders. Proposals for such a measurement have bounced around the world of political science for decades. But the Gill case provides the first opportunity for the Supreme Court since 2004 to make a clear ruling that can serve as a precedent in the future.

Watch the video above to learn more about gerrymandering and why the Supreme Court rulings are consequential.