On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5 to 4 to uphold the right of states to set up independent, non-partisan committees to draw the district maps that determine seats in Congress. Writing the opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said allowing voters to choose how the maps are created follows “the animating principle of our Constitution that the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government.”
She added that “nonpartisan and bipartisan commissions generally draw their maps in a timely fashion and create districts both more competitive and more likely to survive legal challenge,” and noted that “conflict of interest is inherent when legislators dra[w] district lines that they ultimately have to run in.”
Because of that conflict of interest, a growing number of states, including Arizona and California, have set up independent map-drawing bodies to combat the scourge of self-interested gerrymandering, in which the party in control of the state legislature draws the maps to keep as many seats as possible “safe” for their lawmakers.
Pamela Goodman, President of the League of Women Voters of Florida, told ThinkProgress that the ruling gives her hope as they fight an ongoing battle against gerrymandering in the Sunshine State.
“Voters should have a voice in their elections,” she said. “What gerrymandering does is allow lawmakers to draw districts that protect their position. It’s the fox guarding the hen house. Voters are not choosing their representatives. Representatives are choosing their voters.”
Advocates are currently waiting for a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court on whether the maps drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature, which include odd-shaped, snake-like districts that wrap around disparate minority-heavy neighborhoods — making the surrounding districts majority white. Florida voters passed measures in 2010 requiring redistricting to not favor any political party or water down the influence of racial or language minority groups — a process upheld by today’s Supreme Court ruling. But Goodman says enforcement is still a problem. “Unfortunately, our lawmakers did not adhere to the mandate and we have been in litigation ever since then,” she said.
Had the high court ruled the other way, it could have allowed a third of all the congressional districts in the country to be impacted, potentially causing an entrenchment of Republican power in Congress after future elections. Now, voting rights advocates are hoping more states, especially highly gerrymandered North Carolina, adopt the non-partisan process backed by the Supreme Court.
“We’re hopeful that citizens and legislators alike in other states will push politics aside and create independent bodies to draw truly representative districts after the 2020 census,” said Common Cause President Miles Rapoport.
On Monday, the Court also handed a victory to voting rights advocates by rejecting an attempt by Kansas and Arizona to add a proof of citizenship requirement to federal voter registration forms. The forms already require voters to swear under penalty of perjury that they are citizens.
Leading the charge has been Kansas’ Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who told ThinkProgress in February that he has found “plenty of cases” of non-citizens registering to vote in his state, “sometimes unwittingly.”
Yet recent reports of non-citizen voting have been soundly debunked, while past investigations in Florida, Arizona, Colorado and Ohio turned up only a tiny handful of cases — less than one-thousandth of a percent.
Civil rights groups like the Election Protection Network say adding a proof of citizenship requirement for voter registration would actually hurt all voters, especially “traditionally disenfranchised groups like poor, minority and elderly voters,” who may lack the proper documents. In Kobach’s own state, the policy prevented thousands of eligible citizens from casting a ballot in this past election.
Voting rights advocates are lamenting, however, that the Supreme Court’s rejection of Kobach’s crusade only impacts federal election registration, and he is still free to impose additional requirements for state and local elections.