Tag Archives: nonpartisan redistricting

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.”

Have Americans Gerrymandered Ourselves?

On Tuesday, I attended the “Pancakes and Politics” breakfast hosted by the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce. It was a lively and informative panel. One exchange that really struck me was a brief discussion of redistricting.

Everyone on the panel–Republican, Democrat and Statehouse reporter Ed Feigenbaum (who was officially neither)–agreed that noncompetitive elections are bad for democracy, that they pull parties to the extremes, encourage lazy legislators and reduce electoral participation.

The question was, what can be done about it?

The Democrat on the panel endorsed nonpartisan redistricting; the Republican on the panel (I should be better about names!) disagreed. He pointed out that Americans have been “sorting” ourselves into Red and Blue enclaves–voting with our feet to live in places where our neighbors agree with us about values and priorities. True enough–anyone who’s read Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort would recognize the accuracy of his observation.

His second argument against nonpartisan redistricting was less persuasive. Basically, he pooh-poohed the notion that we can really take partisan politics out of the process. The success of nonpartisan processes in Iowa and elsewhere suggest otherwise.

The truth–as is so often the case–is likely somewhere in the middle: eliminating partisan gamesmanship and gerrymandering will not solve the problem of underrepresentation of people living in overwhelmingly blue cities in red and purple states. But it would be measurably fairer than the current system, in which representatives choose their voters rather than the other way around, and that fairness would ameliorate at least some of the cynicism and apathy that depresses voter turnout. And it would increase the numbers of competitive districts–perhaps not as much as advocates hope, but certainly more than the panelist conceded.

Common Cause, which has made redistricting reform a high priority, has announced a contest that highlights one of the reasons that challenges to highly gerrymandered districts have failed: the Supreme Court has consistently declined to get involved unless the districts can be shown to have been drawn to disenfranchise minorities. The Court has said that partisan districts (districts drawn to unfairly benefit a political party) are “justiciable”–that is, that such challenges will be heard by the courts–but they have routinely declined to overturn political decision-making unless racially discriminatory motives can be demonstrated.

Common Cause has invited lawyers and political scientists to propose a new definition of partisan gerrymandering that might allow citizens to win such challenges, promising money prizes, publication of the winning paper and a trip to Washington, D.C.

It will be interesting to see what that contest produces.

Hope springs eternal…..