Supreme Court ruling on Alabama underlines the need for national redistricting standards
Balas is Vice President of Programs at the national public policy organization, Election Reformers Network, and is a long-time advocate for redistricting reform in America.
This month’s earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling on redistricting brought a surprising and promising win for U.S. democracy, but one that highlighted overall weaknesses America must address. In a stunning opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by Justice Kavanaugh, along with the court's three Democratic-appointed Justices, the court held that Alabama's racially discriminatory congressional map violated the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) and must be redrawn.
We at Election Reformers Network applaud this important ruling. It reaffirms that existing federal law, at least to some degree, continues to protect against racial gerrymandering. And it means that Black voters in Alabama will have the opportunity to elect two representatives instead of one, a fairer reflection of their share of the population. However, there are two main types of gerrymandering in America: racial and partisan. There are few protections against partisan gerrymandering, a practice that draws voting boundaries for the express advantage of the majority party. We call for national standards to protect against partisan manipulation of voting lines.
Across the nation, 13 states are in litigation over their Congressional or state district maps, some on racial grounds, others on partisan ones. All are based on allegations that the process was biased and unfair. Republicans are angry in some locations, while elsewhere it’s the Democrats who feel they are being redistricted out of existence. Meanwhile, independent voters feel universally ignored by redistricting processes. North Carolina’s Supreme Court recently ruled that it cannot consider partisan gerrymandering claims under the state constitution, and Utah may go the same way.
Bottom line: when political maps fail to authentically represent the people and communities within a state, that’s a structural “rig” of the system that disenfranchises voters and undermines the democratic system.
A few states – including Arizona, California, Colorado, and Michigan – have taken brave steps against gerrymandering by creating Independent Redistricting Commissions (IRC) to draw legally binding maps instead of leaving the activity to partisan lawmakers. Other states have advisory committees to collect input and make optional recommendations, while still others allow partisans to control the entire map-drawing process – soup to nuts.
At the end of the day, this state-by-state scattershot system deters courageous reforms. Ideally, every state would have an IRC-type structure. But a common refrain by skeptics is, “Why should my state use a nonpartisan process when neighboring states don’t?”
All our peer countries that elect single-member district legislators (like we do) use established national rules requiring independent redistricting. While that’s arguably what should happen in the U.S. as well, many will oppose that level of Congressional mandate.
A sound alternative is to establish national baseline redistricting standards – and to do it now, early in the decade, before new census stats start telling us which districts will be up for grabs. In keeping with U.S. traditions of state autonomy, the method by which each state adheres to those standards could be up to them. Key common-sense criteria include:
- Complying with the U.S. Constitution, including the requirement that districts have equal populations within a state.
- Complying with the Voting Rights Act, ensuring that historically protected groups can elect candidates of their choice.
- Prohibiting unduly favoring (or disfavoring) of any political party, determined by well-tested measures of partisan bias.
- Respecting “communities of interest” (a term referring to areas with recognized similarities or boundaries, such as counties, school districts, tribes, or other areas bound by geographic or historic characteristics).
- Requiring public input, with a transparent process.
Yes, the devil’s in the details. Each of these criteria require more detail than is provided here, and well-tested models for those details exist in state law, U.S. case law, and draft federal legislation. These sources can provide a roadmap to federal standards Americans of all political stripes can trust.
Without collective intervention, powerful partisan forces will devolve our nation into a division of states that are permanently Red or Blue. It is entirely conceivable that politically varied community leadership will be essentially districted out of existence. That’s not the America our children need. Instead, we must update our election systems to draw fair voting districts that reflect our nation’s political, cultural, and ideological diversity. Common-sense, national redistricting standards are a smart place to start.
Districts should reflect our diversity, not our division.