Advocates for redistricting reform scored a crucial victory today when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Arizona's Independent Redistricting Commission
. Passed by the voters in 2000, in an effort to remove legislators' bias from the redistricting process, the commission was imperiled by the GOP's rabid desire to abolish it so that they could gerrymander the state's congressional districts to give themselves a partisan advantage.
This case has broad implications for other electoral reform efforts in several other states. As with Arizona, California has its own independent redistricting commission that would have almost assuredly been found unconstitutional had the plaintiffs prevailed. Similarly, Florida voters passed anti-gerrymandering rules in 2010 (the legislature's redistricting plan is subject to ongoing litigation in state court), and redistricting measures have appeared on the ballot in other states like Ohio.
At issue in this case was the meaning of the Article One constitutional clause governing the rules regarding congressional elections, which states the following:
The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.
Republican state legislators contended that the word "legislature" means the literal representative legislature, which would preclude the voters themselves from directly instituting rules that would determine the electoral rules. Legal scholars are divided over the issue, but some of them gave very compelling reasons
to agree with the defendants. They argue that the concept of the legislature also encompasses the electorate itself, saying the term does not refer to a specific representative body but rather to those who are empowered to make laws. In a state that permits citizens to put forth ballot initiative like Arizona, this means the voters themselves, and the Supreme Court agreed with this interpretation.
Looking to the future, the initiative process provides activists with one of the most potent tools they have to fight gerrymandering. Republican-drawn states such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, and Utah are all ripe targets for potential redistricting reform campaigns if only activists can organize and raise enough funds to compete. Reform initiatives are overwhelmingly popular when proponents have enough funds to wage a competitive campaign, as evidenced by the broad margins by which such measures passed in Arizona, California, and Florida.
While this case only concerns Congress and only immediately impacts Arizona, a ruling for the plaintiffs would have had explosive implications for ballot initiatives and direct democracy. More frighteningly, taken to its logical extreme, such a ruling may have even removed the ability of governors to veto redistricting legislation, since governors are not literally a part of the legislature. That would have destroyed Democrats' ability to block future GOP gerrymandering because it is far easier to win gubernatorial elections in states such as Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin than it is to capture their already gerrymandered legislatures (whose district lines were drawn by Republicans, of course).
Had the ruling gone the other way, it might have kept Democrats out of the House for a very long time, which underscores just how big of a victory this is for reform advocates. It is now up to activists to organize new ballot measures in more states to combat the current gross distortion of gerrymandering.