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US Supreme Court Makes Two Important Rulings on Elections

2019-6-27

The United States Supreme Court issued two rulings Thursday that will affect how Americans elect public officials for some time.

In one ruling, a majority of justices said federal courts cannot block voting maps drawn by the state lawmakers to benefit their own political party. The process is known as gerrymandering.

In the other ruling, the court temporarily stopped the Trump government’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Demonstrators gather at the Supreme Court as the justices finish the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census June 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Applewhite)
Demonstrators gather at the Supreme Court as the justices finish the term with key decisions on gerrymandering and a census case involving an attempt by the Trump administration to ask everyone about their citizenship status in the 2020 census June 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Applewhite)

Gerrymandering

The justices ruled by a 5-4 vote on Thursday that claims of partisan gerrymandering do not belong in federal court. The court’s conservative majority says the issue is a political dispute, not a legal one. They believe voters and elected officials should decide how to settle it.

The court rejected challenges to two congressional voting maps. One was drawn by Republicans in North Carolina. The other was drawn by Democrats in Maryland.

In North Carolina, a lower court had ruled the state’s Republican legislature drew election maps to increase the power of Republican voters and to reduce the power of Democratic ones. In Maryland, Democrats changed the map seeking to win in an area that had been represented by a Republican for 20 years.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. He said that voting maps drawn by the states “are highly partisan by any measure.” But he said federal courts are the wrong place to settle these disputes.

Roberts added that a majority of justices found that “partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.”

Justice Elena Kagan disagreed with the ruling. She wrote for the four liberal justices in the minority. Kagan said that, “for the first time ever, this court refuses to” fix a constitutional violation because it thinks doing so is not part of its job." Kagan added that gerrymandering harms the American system of government.

Lower federal courts have decided that voting maps drawn for partisan gains in five states – including Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio and Wisconsin – went too far. In some cases, the states were ordered to re-draw the maps. The Supreme Court’s ruling overturns those decisions.

Critics fear the Supreme Court’s ruling could invite states under one party’s control to draw new maps for political gain. However, those who want to limit gerrymandering could still challenge highly partisan maps in state courts. One such case is already in a North Carolina state court.

Citizenship question and the census

Chief Justice Roberts was also the deciding vote to stop the Trump administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

Roberts sided with the court’s four liberal justices in the decision. He said the Commerce Department’s explanation for wanting to add the question was “more of a distraction” than an explanation. The department claimed that the question is needed to improve enforcement of the Voting Rights Act.

Writing for the majority, Roberts spoke against “accepting contrived reasons.” He said that if the court’s job is to be meaningful, “it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.”

He added a lower court judge was right to send the issue back to the Commerce Department for a better explanation.

Justice Clarence Thomas, however, said including the citizenship question was within the Commerce Department’s authority. He wrote, “For the first time ever, the court” does not permit a government office to take an action because it does not believe the officials were honest about their reasons. Otherwise, Thomas went on, their reasons were acceptable.

The U.S. Constitution requires a census every 10 years to count the nation’s population. The result will then be used to divide federal money and decide the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wants to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census. Ross said the Justice Department had requested the citizenship question in order to protect minorities’ ability to vote.

But critics argue the citizenship question aims to discourage minorities, who often support Democrats, from filling out census forms. The Census Bureau’s own experts have also predicted that millions of Hispanics and immigrants would go uncounted if the census asked everyone if he or she is an American citizen.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in late April. But challengers say new evidence shows the citizenship question is part of a larger Republican effort to expand political power.

The new evidence came from the files of Thomas Hofeller, a Republican expert in gerrymandering. After Hofeller’s death, his daughter found that he had urged the Trump government to add a citizenship question to the census. She also found that he wrote part of the request from the Justice Department letter claiming the question was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act.

I'm Caty Weaver.

And I'm Jonathan Evans.

Hai Do adapted this story for Learning English based on an Associated Press report. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.

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Words in This Story

partisan - adj. strongly supporting a particular leader, group, or cause

distraction - n. something that prevents you from giving your full attention to something else

contrived - adj. having an unnatural or false appearance or quality

challenge - n. an action, statement, etc., that is against something

draw - v. to make (a picture, image, etc.) by making lines on a surface

distraction - n. something that makes it difficult to think or pay attention

authority - n. the power to give orders or make decisions

discourage - v. to try to make people not want to do (something)