Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Another big court ruling

Today the US Supreme Court issued another ruling, one that will turn out to be huge. The ruling in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission may help finally end gerrymandering.

The graphic above was shared on Facebook by AlterNet and sums up Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion for the majority, and at the end is the gist of the matter: “Voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”

Gerrymandering is the process of drawing the lines of legislative districts in such a way that they benefit one party over another. This is one of those very rare times when, historically, both parties were as bad as each other, but a few years ago the Republican Party spent enormous sums of money (often through their “independent” PACs) to elect Republicans to state legislatures specifically so they could gain control and redraw district lines to ensure they maintained and increased political power, despite fewer and fewer people identifying as Republican.

This is why Republicans control the US House and US Senate: Their gerrymandered Congressional Districts allowed them to seize control of the US House in 2010, and to hold it since. Having lost the presidency twice in a row, their control of the US House gave them the national platform they needed to help them seize control of the US Senate, too, in the 2014 elections.

Republicans also used their gerrymander-created majorities in state legislatures to try and severely restrict voting rights for poor people, minorities, and young people in particular, most of whom traditionally vote Democratic (which is precisely why Republicans wanted to keep them from voting). That’s without even getting into all their anti-worker, anti-middle class, and social issue warring that they did, too.

In Arizona, voters were so frustrated with the gerrymandering that they used the initiative process to transfer the drawing up of district boundaries to an independent commission. Republicans were NOT happy, and fought it every step of the way. Their most immediate concern was that they wanted to draw a map to guarantee one more Republican US Representative with the new Congressional District the state was getting.

All that ended today when the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to uphold the independent commission, with Justice Ginsburg writing the majority opinion [PDF available online].

The non-partisan issue here was, can an independent commission be used to draw district boundaries? The Republicans in control of the Arizona legislature, with no small amount of self-interest, contended that it was their job alone, since they’re elected representatives of the people. Problem is, gerrymandering means they’re not really servants of the people, but of themselves. This same question applied to other states, too.

This ruling affects about one-third of US States that use some form of commission to at least help draw their districts. But it also means that this method can be expanded to other states to help end gerrymandering.

Independent commissions are by no means perfect: Usually, they’re bipartisan, which means that members still potentially serve their parties rather than the people, but often such commissions are balanced between the two parties (as Arizona’s was), which helps a bit. However, imperfect as they are, it is a much better solution than allowing politicians to draw boundaries in order to benefit their self-interest, and that of their parties.

So, today’s ruling is an important step in the electoral reform the USA so desperately needs. It will also help end gerrymandering eventually, but in the short term it will at least help make it easier for advocates to win commissions in other states, and that’s very good news for democracy.

See also: “Supreme Court Rejects Attempt To Make Voter Registration Harder” from ThinkProgess, which also talks about the Court’s voting rights ruling.

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