How Supreme Court ruling could jump-start political innovation

The Supreme Court upheld an Arizona political reform aimed at reining in an important aspect of partisan politics. But the next steps will be hard.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
The US Supreme Court, seen in this Oct. 3, 2014, file photo, on Monday rejected an appeal from Arizona Republicans who objected to the state's independent redistricting commission that voters created to reduce political influence in the process.

A Supreme Court ruling this week gives voters a green light to take the drawing of political maps out of the hands of partisan majorities, but bringing those efforts to fruition is going to be a “pretty heavy lift," activists say.

On Monday, the court upheld Arizona’s voter-approved, independent and bipartisan commission that draws congressional voting districts. That job is typically done by state legislatures, but about a dozen states now allow some form of commission input in the process. The panels are seen as a way to avoid the highly partisan, self-serving maps drawn by legislators every 10 years after a census is taken.

Early evidence suggests that the political reform works, with commissions in Arizona and California drawing maps that have led to competitive races. On election night in 2014, for example, 4 of the 5 United States House elections that were “too close to call,” were from Arizona or California. 

Creating more competitive elections is central to building a healthier democracy, reformers say. The court’s ruling gives a jump-start to about a dozen more redistricting reform efforts, including in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, and Minnesota, says Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director for Common Cause.

“The ruling has really given renewed energy to a lot of the reform efforts that are happening in the states. It’s elevated the issue to a national level, and the solutions that are being discussed feel much more real,” she says.

Gridlock and polarization in Washington have many causes, a big one being the self-sorting of the electorate into like-minded states, neighborhoods, and communities, says David Wasserman, who tracks US House races for the independent Cook Political Report. He notes, for instance, that there are far fewer swing states today than 50 years ago.

But the long established practice of “gerrymandering” – drawing odd-shaped districts to create safe, noncompetitive seats for a particular party – does contribute to the problem, even if experts disagree on how much of a factor it is. For sure, gerrymandering, aided by sophisticated computer software, has “accelerated the extinction of moderates in the House,” Mr. Wasserman says.

There’s also no question that Arizona’s independent commission and the similar one in California (both approved by voters through ballot initiative) have resulted in more competitive districts. The two panels are considered the “gold standard” for their degree of independence from their state legislatures – despite the fact that these panels, too, have had problems with partisan influence from both sides.

For results, look at California from 2002 through 2010, when voters approved an independent commission. Gerrymandering stood as a near sea-wall against “wave” elections that favored first Democrats and then Republicans in the US House. During that time, only one California seat changed party control, according to Douglas Johnson, a redistricting expert at the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

By contrast, in Arizona, where voters approved a state constitutional change to an independent redistricting panel in 2000, seats moved back and forth between parties along with the national wave of Democratic and then Republican preferences, Mr. Johnson says. 

Last fall, Arizona’s Second Congressional District changed hands. That seat was once held by Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely injured in a shooting at a Tucson shopping center that killed six people in 2011. The seat continued Democratic in 2012, but last year, Republican Martha McSally wrestled it back after a recount favored her by just 167 votes. [Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled Ms. McSally's name.]

Representative McSally, America’s first female combat pilot, is well aware that she represents a highly competitive swing district. In an April interview with The Hill newspaper, the freshman cautioned against GOP “messaging” bills that excite the base but don’t have a snowball’s chance of passing the Senate.

“Don’t do stupid stuff,” she warned in the interview. 

In a smart political move, McSally hired former Representative Gifford’s top Democratic spokesman to work for her.

Getting other states to adopt independent commissions – whatever their form – won’t be easy. 

It can happen either through legislators approving them, in which case they will have to be willing to give up their party’s hold on districts (unlikely) or be so fed up with gridlock themselves that they are willing to consider a change. 

Or change can come from frustrated voters who force reform through ballot initiatives. Of the 19 states that allow voters to directly place initiatives on the ballot, only California and Arizona have passed redistricting initiatives.

“Among voters there’s enormous interest in spreading independent redistricting commissions, but making them a reality is extremely difficult and I don’t see any that are poised to go on a ballot any time soon,” says Johnson.

But that does not discourage Ms. Feng at Common Cause. She points to the six failures in California to create an independent redistricting commission before finally tasting success five years ago. It came about because of a widely inclusive process to shape the panel that involved all conceivable stakeholders – and because of a huge outreach once the commission was created. As a result, 30,000 people applied for the 14 spots on the panel.

It will “require a couple of runs” at redistricting reforms in various states, she admits, before it actually comes about. But awareness is growing, she says. "The determination to reinvest in our democracy is really driving people to look at the redistricting process.”

As a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling, “we now have a green light encouraging states to innovate.”

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