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CreditNa Kim

Partisan gerrymandering — the dark art of drawing legislative district lines to specifically favor Republicans or Democrats — is as old as it is corrosive to a representative democracy. Self-interested politicians have no business making maps with the sole purpose of keeping themselves and their party in power.

And yet for decades, the Supreme Court has refused to interfere, unable to agree on a standard to determine when redistricting for partisan purposes violates the Constitution, even when it leads to grotesque results.

In contrast, because of clearer constitutional concerns, the court has weighed in repeatedly on the problem of race-based redistricting. Last week, the justices struck down two North Carolina congressional districts that unnecessarily packed in tens of thousands of extra African-American voters, drawing them out of other districts where they might have made a difference. Of course, race and partisan affiliation are hard to disentangle, as the opinion by Justice Elena Kagan admitted, especially in the South.

With a partisan gerrymandering case likely to hit the court’s docket next term, the justices should finally set clear limits on the practice. The need for those limits is growing only more urgent as voter data and computer-mapping technologies become more sophisticated, and politicians become more brazen in their efforts to protect their power.

Both major parties have long histories of redistricting in their own interest, but since 2010, the benefits have flowed overwhelmingly to Republicans, who swept into Congress and statehouses around the country just as the decennial census set off a new round of redistricting.

During the last three election cycles, the study found, Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina have consistently had the most extreme bias, accounting for seven to 10 extra Republican seats among them. In North Carolina, Republicans hold 10 of 13 congressional seats, even though the statewide vote is roughly split. In Pennsylvania, which Donald Trump won by less than one percentage point, the Republican advantage is 13 to 5.

These three states, along with Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Florida, all share one feature: one-party control of the redistricting process. The study found that this was the most likely culprit behind the bias, for two reasons.

First, there was significantly less bias in states that entrusted mapmaking to the courts or to independent commissions, or that gave Democrats and Republicans shared control over the process. Second, the researchers found little to no effect from neutral factors known to skew seat distribution — like the tendency of Democratic voters to live closer together in cities, thus wasting more votes than Republicans, who tend to be spread over a wider area. In the states with the worst partisan bias, voters are distributed fairly evenly.

The bottom line is that politicians can’t be trusted to draw maps that fairly represent their constituents, and they won’t willingly give up the power once they have it. So it’s up to the courts to step in and set clear rules.

At least three justices believe otherwise. In a strongly worded dissent from last week’s ruling, Justice Samuel Alito Jr., joined by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Anthony Kennedy, argued that the right place to resolve partisan gerrymandering disputes was in the political arena. Otherwise, Justice Alito said, the courts will “be transformed into weapons of political warfare,” inviting “the losers in the redistricting process to seek to obtain in court what they could not achieve in the political arena.”

But that’s precisely the problem. How are “the losers” supposed to fight on a battlefield that the winners have systematically tilted against them?