by Sean J. Young, Staff Attorney, ACLU Voting Rights Project
Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which preserved a vital weapon against partisan gerrymandering, a practice which artificially keeps the dominant political party in power regardless of popular will. The Court held that the Elections Clause of the Constitution, as well as a federal statute (2 U.S.C. § 2a(c)), permit the people of Arizona to use the initiative process to take the congressional redistricting process largely out of the hands of state legislators (those who benefit directly from the redistricting process), and to entrust that important process to an independent body.
As has been widely reported, the congressional redistricting process in many places has devolved into an anti-democratic procedure where politicians essentially decide who they want their voters to be. Using demographic models and projections of voting patterns calculated down to the neighborhood-level, districts can be drawn in such a way (often into odd-looking shapes) so as to virtually guarantee an electoral outcome. Both parties are guilty of this. Thus, for instance, in 2012, in states where Democrats controlled the process, their candidates won about 56 percent of the vote and 71 percent of the seats. In states where Republicans controlled the process, their candidates won roughly 53 percent of the vote but 72 percent of the seats. As one politician has put it, “We are in the business of rigging elections.”
Though courts have long recognized the anti-democratic nature of partisan gerrymandering, they have thus far been reluctant or unable to stop it. So in states like Arizona and California, the people themselves have taken action. Voter-passed initiatives in both states have put redistricting into the hands of independent commissions, which are required to adhere to neutral redistricting principles such as ensuring compactness and contiguity. Though imperfect, independent commissions have been an important weapon in the fight against partisan gerrymandering.