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 first 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 first 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 flip parties. In 2012, approximately a quarter of the state’s 53 congressional incumbents departed through defeats or retirements 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 finally 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.
Bonnie Reiss is director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy.