This post first appeared at Common Cause.
Today, March 2, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that could prevent citizens from fighting for fair representation and an end to gerrymandering. In 2000, Arizona voters passed a ballot initiative creating the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, an unbiased group of non-politician Arizonans tasked with drawing congressional and state legislative districts based on the needs of voters rather than partisan games.
In an open and public process, the commission drew competitive districts based on criteria that put the rights of citizens first, which did not make legislators happy. The Arizona Legislature sued, claiming that the US Constitution gives them the sole power to draw congressional districts unencumbered by annoying legal barriers such as independence, fairness and transparency. A lower court ruled in favor of the Independent Commission, but the Legislature’s appeal is now in the Supreme Court.
If the Court rules in favor of the Legislature, redistricting processes designed to reduce partisanship already in effect in 16 states could be immediately at risk. In addition, reform efforts across America could also be stopped dead in their tracks if legislatures are granted total authority to gerrymander congressional districts.
Redistricting doesn’t always capture the public’s imagination, but here are five reasons why you should care about this case and the problem of gerrymandering.
1. Redistricting is required, but hacking democracy is not.
In order to make sure that every vote has equal worth, states have to redraw all of their legislative districts after every census. This includes Congress and state legislatures. If population changes result in one legislator representing 1000 people and another representing 500 people, that is unfair because the votes of citizens in the larger district are worth half as much. Redistricting is designed to fix that imbalance by changing boundaries to reflect updated population information.
Politicians have taken advantage of this process by using sophisticated mapping technology to slice and dice communities so they or their friends can have an easy path to victory on Election Day. Instead of just making sure that districts have equal populations, legislators are packing certain types of voters into very few districts to make sure they can’t influence surrounding districts or dividing communities into many different districts to keep them from having much voting power in any one of them.
A process that was designed to ensure fairness has been subverted to rig the system.
2. Politicians are choosing voters rather than the other way around.
The most basic requirement of a true democracy is that citizens have the ability to choose their elected leaders by voting. Instead, gerrymandering allows politicians to choose their voters. Giving legislators power over drawing their own districts and congressional maps creates a conflict of interest that turns democracy on its head. Professional athletes don’t get to redraw the sidelines because they step out of bounds, so neither should politicians.
3. Gerrymandering Rewards Extremism.
When voters of different parties are segregated into separate districts, politicians no longer have to listen to citizens with different political viewpoints. This encourages elected officials to appeal to political extremes by scoring points against the other party rather than working with them to solve the problems that are most important to Americans. Elected officials retreat to their partisan corners, where sound bites trump statesmanship. As a result, the last Congress was one of the most polarized of all time.
4. Outcomes Don’t Match Votes.
The goal of gerrymandering is to make sure that votes for the opposing party lead to as few seats as possible for them. The results are indisputable. During the 2012 election, following an aggressive Republican gerrymander in the state, more than half of North Carolina voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates for Congress. Nonetheless, Republicans took 70 percent of seats. In Pennsylvania, Democrats won about half of all votes cast for Congress but won only a quarter of the seats drawn by the Republican legislature. In Maryland, Democrats drew one of the most gerrymandered districts in America and succeeded in winning 88 percent of the state’s congressional districts despite winning only 62 percent of votes. Illinois Democrats drew districts so effective at wasting Republican votes that they won two-thirds of the state’s congressional districts with only 54 percent of the vote.
5. Legislators Just Can’t Help Themselves.
Last year Common Cause, the League of Women Voters of Florida and several Florida voters won a lawsuit against the Florida Legislature because the congressional districts legislators drew were a blatant partisan gerrymander. In Florida, voters passed state constitutional amendments in 2010 that prohibited legislators from drawing their own districts and congressional boundaries with the intent to favor a candidate or incumbent. Unfortunately, the legislature did exactly that.
The trial shined a light on how redistricting works in Florida even when the law prohibits partisan games and undoubtedly exemplifies how things work in states with no such restrictions. Here are some of the facts that came out at trial and through the court-mandated release of hundreds of emails sent between legislative staff and political consultants:
- A sophisticated congressional map drawn for partisan advantage was submitted under the name of a member of the public who testified that he had nothing to do with it and didn’t control the email address from which it was submitted. It is still unknown who submitted the map.
- Legislative staff deleted emails discussing redistricting despite (or perhaps because of) the likelihood of lawsuits.
- Legislative staff gave partisan political consultants previews of congressional maps. One consultant claimed he was merely getting “a lay of the land.”
- Consultants working closely with the legislature discussed packing black voters into a Miami Dade district, a chart of incumbents’ addresses used to guide the drafting process and drawing a map that would force a sitting congressman to retire.
The moral of this story is that legislators cannot resist the temptation to use the redistricting process to rig elections in their favor. If the US Supreme Court rules the wrong way in the Arizona redistricting case, there will be nothing stopping them.