Supreme Court to Punt Redistricting to Legislators -- National Standards Needed

by David Moon // Published March 2, 2006
Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court held oral arguments on the infamous Texas re-redistricting cases. For those unfamiliar with the circumstances leading up to this case -- it started with Tom DeLay's orchestrated effort to win Republican control of the Texas legislature so that he could re-redistrict the state for partisan advantage. In an unprecedented move, Rep. DeLay succeeded in re-redistricting the state through a mid-decade line-drawing that knocked out five Democratic incumbents. Many will recall that Democratic legislators twice fled the state to try and prevent a quorum and to avoid having their attendance compelled. Since then Georgia has followed suit and states ranging from California to Ohio have attempted to re-redistrict by ballot measure. Florida is soon to follow.

When last the Supreme Court took up the issue of partisan gerrymandering (Veith v. Jubilerer), the court was evenly split on the question of whether a standard could be created for determining when a partisan gerrymander went too far. Justice Kennedy, however, left the door open by providing the fifth vote for the concept that a standard for the constitutionality of a district design could theoretically be created, but he declined to say exactly what that standard would be. Rob Richie and John Anderson of FairVote responded to this decision in depth in the Legal Times. However, early reports from observers of the oral arguments have lead experts to conclude the Supreme Court is unlikely to make any meaningful curbs on mid-decade partisan gerrymanders.

If these predictions bear fruit than it means that the battle over redistricting will have to be fought out in the political and legislative arena. Many reform groups have been content to work on a state-by-state strategy of attempting to create independent redistricting commissions, but as the results in Ohio and California indicate, this strategy will inherently call into question partisan motivations -- especially when linked to Congressional redistricting instead of state legislative redistricting. FairVote has consistently advocated for national redistricting standards as the best way to address this problem -- that way one state can't unilaterally alter the make-up of our national "people's house." Alternatively, a new model FairVote proposes is to have pairs or groups of states enter into compacts with each other to conduct independent redistricting, so as to cancel out any partisan gaming that might occur.

In the midst of all of these developments Senator Tim Johnson recently decided to introduce a Senate-side companion bill to Rep. John Tanner's Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act. FairVote took the NGO lead in suggesting a national approach to the problem for congressional districts and in helping to draft and support the Tanner bill, which would require states to conduct redistricting through independent commissions once a decade. Please support these efforts for national redistricting standards. Moreover, we should not let this be the end of the discussion. Many of the state redistricting reform efforts are being sold to voters as cures for uncompetitive and unrepresentative elections - but to truly create those results, state legislatures should expand their discussions to include a serious look at proportional voting systems. Only by tackling the winner-take-all problem that lies at the root of our nation's electoral woes will we be able to create more diverse, more dynamic, and more competitive legislative elections.