Skip to content

Latest Stories

Top Stories
Made with Flourish

High court to voters: You deal with partisan gerrymandering.

Made with Flourish
Made with Flourish

For those who rank political muscle-flexing in electoral mapmaking among the most menacing threats to democracy, the Supreme Court has provided an array of suggestions:

Convince your self-aggrandizing state legislators to cool it. Look for protection in the courts of your own state. Persuade Congress to set a national rule that politicians cannot draw election boundaries, or else come up with a national standard for partisan excesses in setting the lines. Or orchestrate statewide ballot initiatives turning the congressional and state legislative cartographic powers over to independent experts.

In short, the justices said Thursday, do anything you like except look for us to referee the limits of partisan gerrymandering; the Constitution does not contain an explanation for how to do it, and so we are not going to.

"No one can accuse this court of having a crabbed view of the reach of its competence," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. "But we have no commission to allocate political power and influence in the absence of a constitutional directive or legal standards to guide us in the exercise of such authority."

The 5-4 decision, with the five conservatives prevailing over the four liberals, means much of the nation's political balance of power will continue to be shaped by Republicans and Democrats motivated by nothing more than perpetuating their own influence.

Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter

That is, unless voters in states from Florida to Oregon, and from Maine to New Mexico, decide to confront their own lawmakers in coming years and use other means to scrub partisanship out of redistricting. Which is why democracy reform activists, while lambasting the ruling, hailed it as an opportunity to harness the power of grassroots activism.

The court "chose to keep intact a corrupt system that lets politicians choose their voters, instead of the other way around," said Scott Greytak of RepresentUs, one of the most ambitious and well-financed groups advocating for a broad spectrum of political process changes. "Fortunately, we have a plan for unrigging American elections that doesn't rely on the Supreme Court: passing powerful anti-gerrymandering laws state by state."

To that end, his group is arranging for a flood of phone calls on Monday urging New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, to sign legislation adding his purple state to the roster of places where electoral mapmaking has been taken away from the legislature and turned over to an independent commission.

Ballot measures to similarly depoliticize mapmaking were approved by the voters last fall in Michigan, Colorado, Missouri, Ohio and Utah – bringing to 14 the number of states (with 173 House seats, or a two-fifth of the national total) where the next decade's congressional boundaries will not be drawn exclusively by legislators.

A somewhat overlapping roster of 20 states, with an estimated 105 million voters, have taken state House members and state senators out of the process of setting the contours for their own seats.

It is too early to assess which states, if any, will have redistricting reform referenda on the ballot in November 2020.

But the advocacy group Stand Up Republic announced it would seek to get initiatives on the ballot in every state without an independent districting panel.

"The majority of Americans support gerrymandering reform, they just need an outlet to work for change," the group said. "Americans of all persuasions want to have a competitive electoral process. Now, even more than before, we need citizen-led reform."

The long backstory

Four years ago the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to uphold the constitutionality of such independent commissions. One of the dissenters was Roberts, who described the panel created in Arizona as a "deliberate constitutional evasion" in which the legislature subcontracted out its mapmaking obligations under Article I in a way that "has no basis in the text, structure or history of the Constitution."

The chief justice appears to have had a change of heart, however, because on Thursday he wrote approvingly of the state commissions being created on the order of voters in 2018. He also pointed out the merits of state Supreme Court rulings against overly partisan gerrymanders in Florida and Pennsylvania.

He also mentioned several bills in Congress and paid particular attention to HR 1, the comprehensive political process overhaul that has been shelved by the Republican since the newly Democratic House passed it along party lines this spring. The bill would require all states to establish 15-member panels of political independents to draw House boundaries under certain ground rules, including protecting "communities of interest" and avoiding partisan imbalances

The cases decided were challenges to the Republican-drawn congressional map of North Carolina, a closely divided purple state where the delegation has remained reliably 10-3 for the GOP, and the districts successfully drawn by the Democrats to assure they would win seven of eight House seats in Maryland, where the party usually wins no more than three-fifths of the vote.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion; Elena Kagan wrote for the minority.Alex Wong/Getty Images

"These gerrymanders enabled politicians to entrench themselves in office as against voters' preferences," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the four liberals in her dissent. "They promoted partisanship above respect for the popular will. They encouraged a politics of polarization and disfunction. If left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government."

Earlier court rulings against both the Maryland and North Carolina maps have since been echoed by federal judicial panels in three other states that had declared the boundaries of Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin were all unconstitutionally drawn by Republicans to favor their own. Those rulings were all effectively nullified by the high court.

To be sure, in the short term, the ruling will embolden those who control state governments after the next election to be as aggressively partisan as they want in the national redistricting that begins in 2021, once results of the next census are final.

The census citizenship factor

If advocates for a less polarized democracy saw a silver lining Thursday, the Supreme Court's final day of decisions for this term, it came when the justices at least temporarily blocked the Trump administration from including a citizenship question in the census.

It's unclear whether the administration has time to address the court's concerns before the practical deadline for starting to print census forms. And after the ruling, President Trump tweeted that he wants to delay the census if necessary.

The court said the Commerce Department's rationale for adding the question was inadequate. Opponents say the real motives are clear.

One is to assure that millions of mostly Latino immigrants ignore the census, fearing it would lead to deportation, and so in the next decade Democratic-leaning areas where they're concentrated lose legislative seats that instead go to more Republican areas. The even more nefarious motive, they say, is to abandon two centuries of precedent and draw boundaries using only the populations of citizens instead or residents.

If either of those things happens, democracy reform advocates say, the result would be a dangerous accelerant for the partisan gerrymandering the federal courts will now stand clear of.

The Supreme Court has said repeatedly that drawing the lines to deny racial minorities a fair shot at electoral representation is unconstitutional. An open question now is whether mapmakers whose true aim is to disenfranchise African-Americans or Latinos will be able to defend themselves from racial gerrymandering allegations by saying their motives are purely partisan.

Protecting political power has been part of the redistricting process as long as there is been Congress, although the technological advances of recent decades have permitted politicians to custom design their own own territory with incredible precision and virtually guaranteed electoral safety.

None of the current court has any experience with that. That may be one reason why Roberts referred repeatedly in the rationale for his opinion to past writings by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who was a state senator in Arizona before joining the court. O'Connor, who was the last person on the court to have run in an election, left 14 years ago.

Made with Flourish

Read More

Trump and Biden at the debate

Our political dysfunction was on display during the debate in the simple fact of the binary choice on stage: Trump vs Biden.

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The debate, the political duopoly and the future of American democracy

Johnson is the executive director of the Election Reformers Network, a national nonpartisan organization advancing common-sense reforms to protect elections from polarization.

The talk is all about President Joe Biden’s recent debate performance, whether he’ll be replaced at the top of the ticket and what it all means for the very concerning likelihood of another Trump presidency. These are critical questions.

But Donald Trump is also a symptom of broader dysfunction in our political system. That dysfunction has two key sources: a toxic polarization that elevates cultural warfare over policymaking, and a set of rules that protects the major parties from competition and allows them too much control over elections. These rules entrench the major-party duopoly and preclude the emergence of any alternative political leadership, giving polarization in this country its increasingly existential character.

Keep ReadingShow less
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Voters should be able to take the measure of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., since he is poised to win millions of votes in November.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Getty Images

Kennedy should have been in the debate – and states need ranked voting

Richie is co-founder and senior advisor of FairVote.

CNN’s presidential debate coincided with a fresh batch of swing-state snapshots that make one thing perfectly clear: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. may be a longshot to be our 47th president and faces his own controversies, yet the 10 percent he’s often achieving in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada and other battlegrounds could easily tilt the presidency.

Why did CNN keep him out with impossible-to-meet requirements? The performances, mistruths and misstatements by Joe Biden and Donald Trump would have shocked Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, who managed to debate seven times without any discussion of golf handicaps — a subject better fit for a “Grumpy Old Men” outtake than one of the year’s two scheduled debates.

Keep ReadingShow less
I Voted stickers

Veterans for All Voters advocates for election reforms that enable more people to participate in primaries.

BackyardProduction/Getty Images

Veterans are working to make democracy more representative

Proctor, a Navy veteran, is a volunteer with Veterans for All Voters.

Imagine this: A general election with no negative campaigning and four or five viable candidates (regardless of party affiliation) competing based on their own personal ideas and actions — not simply their level of obstruction or how well they demonize their opponents. In this reformed election process, the candidate with the best ideas and the broadest appeal will win. The result: The exhausted majority will finally be well-represented again.

Keep ReadingShow less
Person voting at a dropbox in Washington, D.C.

A bill moving through Congress would only allow U.S. citizens to vote in D.C. municipal eletions.

Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images

The battle over noncitizen voting in America's capital

Rogers is the “data wrangler” at BillTrack50. He previously worked on policy in several government departments.

Should you be allowed to vote if you aren’t an American citizen? Or according to the adage ‘No taxation without representation’, if you pay taxes should you get to choose the representatives who help spend those tax dollars? Those questions are at the heart of the debate over a bill to restrict voting to U.S. citizens.

Keep ReadingShow less
people walking through a polling place

Election workers monitor a little-used polling place in Sandy Springs, Ga., during the state's 2022 primary.

Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

What November election? Half of the U.S. House is already decided.

Troiano is the executive director ofUnite America, a philanthropic venture fund that invests in nonpartisan election reform to foster a more representative and functional government. He’s also the author of “The Primary Solution.”

Last month, Americans were treated to an embarrassing spectacle: Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas) tradingpersonal insults related to “fake eyelashes” and a “bleach blonde bad built butch body” during a late-night committee hearing. Some likened it to Bravo’s “Real Housewives” reality TV series, and wondered how it was possible that elected officials could act that way and still be elected to Congress by the voters.

The truth is, the vast majority of us don’t actually elect our House members — not even close. Less than 10 percent of voters in Crockett’s district participated in her 2024 Democratic primary, which all but guaranteed her re-election in the safe blue district. Greene ran unopposed in her GOP primary — meaning she was re-elected without needing to win a single vote. The nearly 600,000 voters in her overwhelmingly red district were denied any meaningful choice. Both contests were decided well before most voters participate in the general election.

Keep ReadingShow less