Arizona and a Sigh of Relief

Among the end-of-term decisions handed down by the Supreme Court was Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. It was an important case–had the legislature prevailed, it would have dealt a near-fatal blow to the ability of good government groups to address the practice of gerrymandering.

Some years back, via a referendum, Arizona citizens struck a blow against gerrymandering by establishing a nonpartisan commission to draw its election maps. The state legislature sued, asserting that language in the Constitution limits the right to regulate national elections to Congress and state legislatures.

In a decision that legislative scholar Tom Mann called “a model of constitutional reasoning,” a divided Court upheld the right of citizens to determine who shall 

…have the ultimate authority over who shall represent them in public office. The majority opinion quotes Madison to powerful effect: “The genius of republican liberty seems to demand . . . not only that all power should be derived from the people, but those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people.”

As Richard Pildes wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed,

The main, and best, justification for direct democracy is precisely the need for this kind of check, just as the voters in Arizona exercised, on the self-interested temptations of power when legislators regulate the political process itself.

Direct democracy is hardly a panacea or a pure expression of “the popular will,” whatever that means; voters must be organized and informed, which takes resources and organizational skill. Still, direct democracy remains an important means of policing the inevitable temptations those in power have to entrench themselves more securely in power.

On Monday the court rightly recognized that, when the Constitution assigned the elections clause power to the “legislatures,” the framers were not making a judgment about whether states could create direct democratic processes as another way to regulate the national election process. Unlike their rejection of popular Senate elections, the framers did not reject popular regulation of elections: They just never considered the idea. To reject it in their name, the court wisely concluded, would have been perverse.

It isn’t easy to rein in the self-interested process of legislative line-drawing under even the best of circumstances; those who have power only surrender that power when they have no choice. Had the Arizona legislature’s challenge succeeded, redistricting reform would be virtually impossible.

File this one under “dodged a bullet.”


  1. I’d suggest that Indiana take the same path to limit gerrymandering. I live in Hancock Co. and as a result my state rep became Brian Bosma in 2012. He resides in Marion County. Pretzel logic?

  2. This ruling is a giant step toward “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”. I doubt that it will happen anytime soon for Indiana, but much of the rest of the country will begin to reap the benefits. Sadly it wouldn’t be Indiana if we were not at least twenty years behind all the other states in the union.

  3. The Arizona arrangement is such a good thing that it should be a federal law. I think everyone agrees that gerrymandering attenuates the will of the people and keeps people in power who should not be in power and frustrates people who want a representative government. I suspect that if voting were more fair, we would also see a higher turnout and less extreme politics in the legislature.

  4. One of the baits used by oligarchs through media to attract voters is the mere mention of the universal prize of “freedom”. I suppose that it’s good that Americans are still attracted to the word though many are confused by what constitutes our acquisition and maintenance of it.

    First of all in real life here the most likely compromises of it do not come from government but from other people and corporations. So we have laws that are very specific about what is and is not acceptable for each of us to impose on others. And a strong government to enforce them.

    In the absence of our Constitution that would lead to the threat of over-reaching government being the worrisome source of abridged freedom. But the purpose of the Constitution is as the bylaws of government specifying what areas of life the governments and those laws must stay clear of like speech and assembly and religion.

    Finally democratic government in the form of a republic guarantees that we the people hire and fire the key leaders that make and enforce and adjudicate the laws that manage our behavior away from unacceptably interfering with the lives of others. Democracy.

    So freedom comes to us by the rule of law, the Constitution, the organization of government as a republic and democracy. Not weak government but strong government staffed by people of our choosing and limited away from those areas of life where freedom needs to be unrestricted.

    In “The Wealth of Nations” Adam Smith opined another log in our bulwarks protecting freedom. He reasoned that in free markets perfectly informed buyers and sellers could choose among all alternatives in satisfying needs. True, but if you’re a seller mightn’t a partially or maybe even misinformed buyer be more likely to frequent your business? Of course. And as the joke says, that’s when the fight began.

    Professionals can be extremely effective leading potential consumers away from perfectly informed. The evidence says way more effective than we realize. Bad enough but those skills are just as effective in the market of democracy as well. The last thing that business and the business of politics wants are perfectly informed consumers and voters.

    That’s where we are today. The thinking and promises of our founders and Adam Smith compromised by technology and thought ware. An effective source of misinformation within reach of our senses 24/7 manned by skilled professionals surgically “enhancing” our knowledge of commercial and political products. And so far at least totally inadequate protection by the laws we count on to prevent imposition by others on our lives. Our fort has fallen to an enemy we did not see coming.

    The end of freedom? It well could be.

  5. If the freedom that you want is primarily your own than you’re really interested in power not freedom.

  6. My husband, who is a pretty proficient map reader, tried to figure out where state senate district 7 was in Fairfield township (which, btw overwhelmingly voted for Brad Thompson, Hershman’s opponent in this district) which, as far as he could tell, actually went down the middle of a street. This was done to completely dilute this deep blue swath of urban voters in Hershman’s solid rural red district thus wiping it out. I also got redistricted into Lehe’s district, so I have NO representation.

  7. This is the most important issue for the citizens of Indiana. Until we have fairly drawn legislative districts, Indiana will remain behind the curve on every social and economic issue. Now what are all the quick-to-write respondents to Shelia’s blog going to do about this?
    First, I suggest, is beseige the local newspapers and tv stations with letters and calls about the urgency of redistricting reform in Indiana. Second, form local groups for responsible redistricting and make sure that every candidate in your area for every office understands the need to address this issue. Don’t let this opportunity slip away.

  8. Morton, I agree with you about what needs to be done here in Indy. I will meet with others of like mind, even open my home to such a meeting. For first meeting we will need someone with a real understanding of the political situation (what is going on now in Indiana) and someone with legal knowledge. Anyone else want to take on this cause?

  9. Morton and Teresa: the League of Women Voters and Common Cause have made gerrymandering and redistricting reform their highest priority. They have been working on strategies, and I would encourage anyone who agrees that this is of immense importance to work with or through either organization.

  10. Question: what would be the ideal goals for redistricting?

    I assume contiguous areas, defined registered voter population range, but I’m not sure about registered party population.

    Any ideas?

  11. Maybe this is an Apollo 11 moment one small step, but a giant leap for Voters Rights. The usual four suspects on SCOTUS voting to preserve the rights of the Oligarchy. Perhaps at some point we can convince SCOTUS that Massive amounts of Money dumped into the Electoral Process does not equate to Free Speech.

    If there are any people in our Indiana Government that believe in the concept of Representative Democracy they should start agitating for compact voting districts.

  12. This should be the law of the land; not only Arizona. Gerrymandering reminds me of Columbus discovering America – where hundreds of thousands were already living. It is simply a takeover of choice areas and dumping those less desirable.

  13. Well, that was an interesting read. Thanks Pete.
    What I see here in Indiana is a redistricting system that allows for gerrymandering of such a partisan nature that a large portion of the population has no hope of ever having someone they voted for represent them. So we need a new system for redistricting. The majority of people of the state need to be convinced of this injustice and shown how it affects them. Not an easy task for sure, but I believe doable. So, let us begin.

  14. Once you get a fair, nonpolitical group to decide how to fairly represent people, you are almost there. If they understand that manipulating the election to favor one party is wrong, I’ll bet they can figure out how to manipulate the boundary lines so it will be fair. Right now, we don’t even have the right to propose a referendum, even though over 70% of the electorate (both political parties) agree that it should be an option. That means we are at the mercy of representatives who probably do not want boundary lines re-drawn, because they are more interested in power than fairness. And people get upset about rigged elections!

  15. This falls into a strange but true category for me. I remember reaching the age where I could vote. I was living in Kentucky and drove to the County Clerk’s Office to complete the voter registration application. All went well during completing the application form until I was asked to write the name of my membership in a political party. Being an independent-minded and rather private young woman, even back then, I told the clerk that I was not a member of any political party.

    She quickly replied, “Well, if you expect to vote in any local elections, you’d better write that you’re a Democrat.” The KY Voter Registration application has not changed one iota since my youth.

Comments are closed.