On June 29, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the will of the voters with its ruling in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. The Court’s ruling was not a resounding victory in the battle against GOP gerrymandering; rather, it simply confirms the rights of voters in states like Arizona and California to create nonpartisan commissions to conduct congressional redistricting. In most other states, redistricting authority remains in the hands of state legislatures, where Republican lawmakers have employed aggressive gerrymandering to distort Congress and further their partisan agenda.
The Arizona ruling is a positive development for those who value meaningful democratic representation in Congress. But Democrats and our allies must not allow this decision to divert us from the most effective strategy to fight GOP gerrymandering: electing more Democratic lawmakers to draw the maps. While the establishment of redistricting commissions by voters will remain an available remedy in a few of the most egregiously gerrymandered states, the work of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) and Advantage 2020 to elect more Democratic state legislators remains the most crucial weapon in the fight for fairer districts.
One factor limiting the potential impact of the Arizona ruling is that so few states have adopted redistricting commissions. California voters created a commission in 2008 that functions much like Arizona’s, but so far, no other states have followed suit. Nine other states use appointed or advisory commissions in the redistricting process, and even among these nine, state legislators are substantially involved in the process.
One obstacle to voter-created redistricting commissions is the ballot initiative process itself. The steps required to place such a measure on the ballot vary widely from state to state, and the effort can be burdensome and expensive.
Michigan is a prime example of a state where a voter-created nonpartisan redistricting commission could block a future GOP gerrymander. Michigan progressives are currently exploring this possibility, but it isn’t the only solution; a Democratic majority in the state House is well within reach in time for the next redistricting and will block complete Republican control of the process.
Regardless of whether congressional maps are created by a commission or are the product of bipartisan compromise, Michigan Democrats stand to benefit. The current gerrymander creates situations like the skewed results of 2014. In a challenging election year for the party nationwide, Michigan Democrats still won 52,000 more votes in U.S. House elections than Michigan Republicans -- a clear majority. But despite winning only 49 percent of the vote, the extreme GOP gerrymander enabled Michigan Republicans to win nine of 14 House seats. That’s a return of 64 percent of Michigan House seats on just 49 percent of the total vote.
Florida is another example of an opportunity for voters to block the next GOP gerrymander by creating a non-partisan commission via ballot measure. Again, Democrats can’t help but benefit. In 2012, President Obama won the state with 50 percent of the vote statewide. In the same election, Republicans won 17 of Florida’s 27 U.S. House seats – 63 percent of the delegation.
A principal reason for the rarity of redistricting processes resembling Arizona’s and California’s nonpartisan commissions is that voters have no mechanism to create a nonpartisan redistricting commission via ballot measure in many of the biggest redistricting battlegrounds. These highly gerrymandered states provide voters with no provisions for lawmaking by popular initiative.
Virginia is one of these states. President Obama won almost 51 percent of the vote there in 2012, yet Republicans won eight of 11 U.S. House seats – almost 73 percent of the delegation. In voter referendum-free Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, 2012 Democratic U.S. House candidates won more total votes statewide than their GOP opponents. Because of gerrymandered maps, Republicans won a majority of the House seats in each, netting the GOP a total of 15 seats across just these three states (12 Democrats/27 Republicans total).
In Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and many other states, the Arizona ruling is practically meaningless. Unless GOP lawmakers suddenly become willing to relinquish their redistricting authority of their own volition, only Democratic majorities can prevent Republicans from warping U.S. House elections in these states through 2030.
The ruling in the Arizona case preserves one possible path to block GOP gerrymandering, but working to create commissions is ultimately an insufficient remedy to GOP hegemony in the next round of redistricting. Arizona at least presents progressives with a possible two-pronged strategy in advance of 2020: working to create independent redistricting commissions via ballot measure where we can while electing Democratic state legislators to prevent Republican gerrymandering everywhere. In states all across the country, Republicans will again seek to exploit the next round of redistricting to serve their own agendas – unless Democratic state legislators stop them.
The work of the DLCC and Advantage 2020 to elect more Democratic state legislators remains the best prophylactic against extreme GOP gerrymandering in the next decade. Democrats already know we cannot afford to allow Republicans to rig the game again. Our nation can’t afford future sessions of Congress dominated by unaccountable Republicans drawn into ultra-safe districts by their partisan ilk. Americans everywhere deserve better.
Sargeant is DLCC executive director and Schauer is director of Advantage 2020, the redistricting super PAC.