Direct Democracy Directly At Risk

Posted on March 2, 2015

Thumbnail for the redistricting campaign

The Supreme Court is set to determine whether citizens may participate in decision-making related to election integrity. If the answer is No, the public will lose a crucial tool in place since the country’s founding. If the answer is Yes, then the next question is the degree to which citizens’ direct involvement is permissible. Specifically, the Court is considering whether a state may consider its citizens as part of the state legislature when citizens initiate referenda on the “times, places and manner of holding elections,” as prescribed by the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday morning in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, a constitutional challenge of the citizen vote that created an independent redistricting commission in 2000. Partisan gerrymandering of our electoral districts undermines our democracy by squashing competitiveness and suppressing diverse voices in our election contest. By establishing independent redistricting commissions, citizens have opted to dilute the influence of legislative stakeholders with inherent conflicts of interest from the redistricting process.

The Supreme Court has not established a constitutional standard for partisan gerrymandering, leaving it to the states to experiment and set best practices. Citizens in Arizona and California have heard that call and established independent commissions through initiative and referendum. Indeed, participatory democracy may be the only viable option for fair representation in heavily gerrymandered states such as Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. As summed up by Kathay Feng, Common Cause Redistricting Director, “Sixteen states with redistricting systems designed to make the process less partisan could be at risk. In addition, reform efforts in a dozen states would be stopped dead in their tracks if the Court backs state legislators’ attempt to win a constitutional right to gerrymander.”

And, remarkably, even more is at stake here. The Supreme Court’s determination could threaten nearly any future ballot initiatives related to electoral reform, at a time when our political system is suffocated by extreme polarization and floods of money. The Court will decide whether, through direct democracy, the people stand a chance against the voices of the few.

Common Cause is among the dozens of parties represented in 14 friend-of-the-court briefs submitted in this case. The diversity of views among those sitting on the same side of the fence is telling. The concerns of the democracy reform community here are similar to those raised by the bipartisan voices of members of Congress, a range of state and local officials, and state Attorney Generals, in addition to the U.S. Solicitor General, the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, and the California Chamber of Commerce.

The case is a call for us to remember the first three words of the Constitution which identify those responsible for upholding the foundations of our social contract of governance by popular sovereignty – “We the People.”

Office: Common Cause National

Issues: Voting and Elections

Tags: Redistricting

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