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Could Supreme Court Decision Lead To Death Of The Gerrymander?

Jul 1, 2015
Originally published on June 29, 2015 5:17 pm

The Supreme Court's decision on Monday to uphold the constitutionality of Arizona's independent redistricting commission has some hoping their model could now pave the way for other states to adopt a less partisan way of drawing congressional lines.

"There are a lot of efforts around the country to try and get commissions enacted, and now I think those efforts are going to go full-steam ahead," said Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a law professor at the University of Chicago who studies elections and redistricting. "Now that the Constitution has been cleaned up, the green light is definitely visible through this."

So far, two states — Arizona and California — have adopted the independent commissions, each created by voter referendum. Had the court ruled against the legality of those bodies, it could have affected as many as one-third of congressional districts — spurring not just a redrawing of lines there but also impacting other states that have commissions involved in some capacity.

The court's decision gave hope to gerrymandering opponents, who have long advocated for better ways to draw boundaries than by those who would benefit the most from them. (Here's a brief history of "gerrymandering" and how it got the name.)

"Now with California and Arizona on safe constitutional ground, maybe other states will look to them as a model," said Stanford Law School professor Nathaniel Persily, who filed an amicus brief in the case.

According to Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director for Common Cause, a left-leaning nonprofit focused on "promoting open, honest and accountable government," "There are already a lot of active movements afoot that had been on a temporary pause."

Now, her group is working to start or restart those in many states.

Feng said there are already efforts in North Carolina, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio, Maryland and others to try to push through some types of reform before the 2020 census. Those could depend on trying to get bills through legislatures and eventually to a voter referendum, which could still be a long, arduous process.

"There will be movements in some other states," Persily said, "but it really is in those states that have the initiative process and are comfortable using it."

But in states with some of the most contentious processes, like Texas, the use of a commission would be harder to pass. So, for now, expect redistricting and gerrymandering fights to continue into the next reapportionment process.

Still, Feng said such methods should be an issue of bipartisan concern — because it's not always guaranteed that the political party one side or another likes will be in power forever in a state. California's 2008 initiative creating its commission had the backing of many Republicans and was opposed by top Democrats. Meanwhile, in Maryland, GOP Gov. Larry Hogan has been supportive of the idea of an independent commission in his state.

"This is a bit of an insurance policy," Feng said of commissions. "If you're not sure what the outcome will be, then handing it to a group of neutral arbiters can be a positive thing as an assurance that you won't be drawn out as political punishment."

For Linda McNulty, who was one of the Democratic members on Arizona's Independent Redistricting Commission, Monday's ruling is hope that other states will follow their group's lead.

"What the Arizona voters did here was try to ensure one of the basic principles of how our government works — the voters choose the representative and not the other way around," McNulty said. "I think this case opens the door a little wider for other states to build on what Arizona did and hopefully improve on it."

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