No to ger­ry­man­der­ing

In up­hold­ing citizen redistricting pan­els, the Supreme Court comes down on the side of com­mon sense and democ­racy.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Bon­nie Reiss Bon­nie Reiss is di­rec­tor of the USC Sch­warzeneg­ger In­sti­tute for State and Global Pol­icy.

Who sup­ports ger­ry­man­der­ing? Not vot­ers, who regularly pre­fer to give in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sions the power to set vot­ing bound­aries. Not the Supreme Court, which ruled Mon­day in fa­vor of Ari­zona’s vot­ers and their redistricting com­mis­sion. That leaves one group: politi­cians in­ter­ested in keep­ing their jobs, re­gard­less of vot­ers’ best in­ter­ests, democ­racy and plain com­mon sense.

In 2000, Ari­zona vot­ers, fed up with po­lit­i­cal ger­ry­man­der­ing, over­whelm­ingly passed Propo­si­tion 106. This bal­lot ini­tia­tive took away the power to draw con­gres­sional dis­tricts from state politi­cians and gave it to a com­mis­sion made up of two Democrats, two Repub­li­cans and one in­de­pen­dent chair­man.

Fol­low­ing the 2010 cen­sus, the redistricting com­mis­sion re­drew Ari­zona’s con­gres­sional dis­tricts with­out pref­er­ence to po­lit­i­cal par­ti­san­ship. As a re­sult, the ma­jor­ity Repub­li­can Party was left with fewer safe con­gres­sional dis­tricts. In re­sponse, the Repub­li­can- led Leg­is­la­ture ig­nored the will of the peo­ple and sued the redistricting com­mis­sion, claim­ing that re­forms en­acted by the peo­ple were un­con­sti­tu­tional.

On Mon­day, the Supreme Court stopped that ar­gu­ment cold. In a 5- 4 rul­ing, the court pro­tected di­rect democ­racy and vot­ers’ de­sires for rea­son­able con­gres­sional dis­tricts that aren’t rigged in in­cum­bents’ fa­vor.

“The framers,” wrote Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg for the ma­jor­ity, “may not have imag­ined the mod­ern ini­tia­tive process in which the peo­ple’s leg­isla­tive power is co­ex­ten­sive with the state leg­is­la­ture’s au­thor­ity, but the in­ven­tion of the ini­tia­tive was in full har­mony with the Con­sti­tu­tion’s conception of the peo­ple as the font of gov­ern­men­tal power.”

This is es­pe­cially rel­e­vant to Cal­i­for­nia and 23 other states that al­low di­rect democ­racy through bal­lot ini­tia­tives be­cause the le­gal ar­gu­ment against Ari­zona’s redistricting plan was based on Ar­ti­cle 1, Sec­tion 4 of the U. S. Con­sti­tu­tion. It says that states, through their leg­is­la­tors, shall de­ter­mine the time, place and man­ner of con­gres­sional elec­tions. Ari­zona’s Repub­li­cans ar­gued that the peo­ple, us­ing a bal­lot ini­tia­tive, don’t count as leg­is­la­tors, and that the Con­sti­tu­tion in­tended only for the elected Leg­is­la­ture to set elec­tion rules.

If the court had agreed, not just Ari­zona’s redistricting re­form but hun­dreds of po­lit­i­cal re­forms en­acted by di­rect democ­racy would have been in jeop­ardy. Chief among them would be two Cal­i­for­nia elec­tion re­forms. In 2008 and 2010, with lead­er­ship from then- Gov. Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger, a bi­par­ti­san coali­tion of Cal­i­for­nia vot­ers handed redistricting to an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion and es­tab­lished the non­par­ti­san top- two pri­mary. Both re­forms were passed to cre­ate less po­lar­ized leg­isla­tive and con­gres­sional dis­tricts where elected mem­bers were more ac­count­able to the peo­ple they serve.

Prior to these re­forms, in 2010, 100% of Cal­i­for­nia’s con­gres­sional and state Leg­is­la­ture in­cum­bents who ran were re­elected in the dis­tricts that leg­is­la­tors them­selves drew. This strato­spheric re­elec­tion rate is es­pe­cially strik­ing when com­pared with Congress’ fa­vor­a­bil­ity, which polls around 10% on a good day. Hem­or­rhoids and lice con­sis­tently poll higher than Congress. It doesn’t take a ge­nius to see that the sys­tem ben­e­fits those in of­fice, not the vot­ers who put them there.

In 2012, the f irst elec­tion af­ter Cal­i­for­nia’s re­forms took ef­fect, we be­gan to see real change. First, there was no­tice­able turnover in the Leg­is­la­ture and con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tions for the f irst time in years. Ac­cord­ing to Bloomberg Busi­ness, from 2002 to 2010, in 265 Cal­i­for­nia House races in gen­eral elec­tions, only once did a dis­trict rep­re­sen­ta­tion f lip par­ties. In 2012, ap­prox­i­mately a quar­ter of the state’s 53 con­gres­sional in­cum­bents de­parted through defeats or re­tire- ments that were mostly thought to have been brought on by redistricting.

Re­search com­mis­sioned by the USC Sch­warzeneg­ger In­sti­tute and re­leased last year used an al­go­rithm for mea­sur­ing leg­is­la­tor ide­ol­ogy and showed that Cal­i­for­ni­ans are in fact get­ting the changes in po­lar­iza­tion they hoped for, par­tic­u­larly at the state level. Prior to the re­forms, Cal­i­for­nia state leg­is­la­tors had ex­treme vot­ing records. Post- re­form, their vot­ing records mod­er­ated, with the gap in po­lar­iza­tion be­tween the par­ties fall­ing 15% in the Assem­bly and 10% in the state Se­nate. Dur­ing the same time, a dif­fer­ent study us­ing the same al­go­rithm showed that par­ties in Congress have grown more po­lar­ized.

There’s still a lot of work to do. To­day, only six of the 50 states have tack­led ger­ry­man­der­ing head on. Redistricting re­form is not a sexy is­sue, and progress is of­ten slow and la­bor in­ten­sive. Cal­i­for­nia failed to pass redistricting re­form many times be­fore it f in­ally won. Politi­cians are gen­er­ally hos­tile to chang­ing a sys­tem that ben­e­fits them once they are in of­fice.

But di­rect democ­racy and com­mon sense al­lowed the peo­ple of Cal­i­for­nia to act when their lead­ers were un­will­ing to. For­tu­nately, the Supreme Court stood with the peo­ple and states that al­low di­rect democ­racy when politi­cians fail to act.

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