Victory for Voters and Democracy: Supreme Court Deals Blow to Gerrymandering

June 29, 2015

By Lisa Rosenberg

The Supreme Court delivered a victory to representative democracy today, ruling in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission that under the Constitution’s Elections Clause, an independent body, and not only a state legislature, has the power to create voting districts.

In 2000, the people of Arizona voted by referendum to create an independent redistricting commission to draw voting districts, taking the process away from the legislature and outside of the political pulls associated with redistricting efforts. The Arizona legislature sued to overturn the results of the referendum in order to regain its authority to draw voting districts.

Today’s decision ensures that independent commissions remain an option in the fight to eliminate partisan gerrymandering and begins to reverse the trend in which “representatives choose their voters instead of voters choosing their representatives.” For too long, the United States’ inability to address political gerrymandering has sullied our reputation as a standard bearer of democracy.

At NAFSA, we stand among those who see the United States as part of the global community, and believe our own democracy should be an example of what works. A succinct example provided by The Economist demonstrates the way gerrymandered districts skew our democracy, making Congress less representative of the voters.

Imagine a state with five congressional seats and only 25 voters in each. That makes 125 voters. Sixty-five are Republicans, 60 are Democrats. You might think a fair election in such a state would produce, say, three Republican representatives and two Democrats.

Now imagine you can draw the district boundaries any way you like. The only condition is that you must keep 25 voters in each one. If you were a Republican, you could carve up the state so there were 13 Republicans and 12 Democrats per district. Your party would win every seat narrowly. Republicans, five-nil.

Now imagine you were a Democrat. If you put 15 Republicans in one district, you could then divide the rest of the state so that each district had 13 Democrats and 12 Republicans. Democrats, four-one. Same state, same number of districts, same party affiliation: completely different results. All you need is the power to draw district lines. And that is what America provides: a process, called redistricting, which, through back-room negotiations too boring for most voters to think about, can distort the democratic system itself.”

Such partisan gerrymandering transforms representative institutions into fiefdoms that mute the voices of the minority. The result is “hyperpartisan districts” in which electoral competition comes not from another party but from primary challenges, forcing members of Congress to lunge to the far poles of their party in order to hold on to their seats. Compromise, and a truly representative democracy, become harder to realize.

Many national and international bodies have proposed standards for voting districts in which citizens are fairly and meaningfully represented. Beyond ensuring that every vote counts, maintaining “communities of interest”—groups that share “common social, cultural, racial, economic, geographic, or other concerns”—is an important consideration in redistricting. Keeping districts compact and relying on geographic features also contribute to rational redistricting. Transparency in redistricting provides credibility, community input and buy-in.  Nowhere in any proposal for redistricting “best practices” is a system that can be used to discriminate against any population or guarantee the election of any individual or political party.

Our politically infused redistricting system has also made us unique among democracies. Independent redistricting commissions are the norm, not the exception in democracies around the globe and partisan legislatures rarely have a role in the process. Today’s ruling gives states the option to manage redistricting in a less partisan manner, reaffirming our democratic values and leading us toward a more perfect union.


Lisa Rosenberg is the senior director for public policy at NAFSA: Association of International Educators.


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