What the Supreme Court's Redistricting Decision Means

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that Arizona can continue to rely on an independent commission to draw its districts for state and congressional legislators. The decision avoids a scramble to redraw Arizona’s districts ahead of the 2016 elections. Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Election reformers got a major assist Monday from the Supreme Court, which upheld states' use of nonpartisan commissions, as opposed to lawmakers, to draw their voting districts. The question that remains unsettled: whether it will really do much to reduce the hyper-partisanship plaguing the country, one of reformers' main justifications for the commissions.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that Arizona can continue to rely on an independent commission to draw its districts for state and congressional legislators. Grand Canyon State voters passed an initiative in 2000 to create the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (made up of two Democratic picks, two Republican picks and an independent leader) to draw district lines, which happens once a decade, after the national census. But in 2012, the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature sued, arguing that the Constitution's "Elections Clause" explicitly gives legislatures power over designing and running state elections, including drawing district maps. And an unelected commission, the Legislature argued, doesn't count.

A majority on the Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion, concluded that the "history and purpose" of the Elections Clause suggests voters can take control of how their election maps are drawn, "as does the animating principle of our Constitution that the people themselves are the originating source of all the powers of government."

The decision avoids a mad scramble to redraw Arizona's districts ahead of the 2016 elections. And, with more significant implications for Congress and the nation, California adopted a similar approach in 2008, creating an independent redistricting commission to draw its districts after the 2010 census. If the court had sided with Arizona's Legislature, it would have likely triggered legal challenges against California's system as well. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, redistricting commissions in Hawaii, Idaho, New Jersey and Washington could also have been at risk, as well as other state election laws enacted by voters, depending on how broad the court's ruling was.

Reformers in those states can exhale now, and politicians can start gearing up for the 2016 elections knowing their maps will stay as is, which is no small thing for elected officials whose chances of re-election depend largely on the partisan breakdown of their districts.

But there is still a lot that is up in the air about the country's election map for 2016. District lines in Texas, Maryland, North Carolina and Florida are all being challenged in court over allegations that they violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The outcome could determine just how friendly their maps are to Democrats or Republicans, which is particularly key in North Carolina and Florida, which are swing states.

In Virginia, another battleground state, the Legislature is still wrangling over how to redraw its lines after its existing ones were struck down by a court in 2014 over Voting Rights Act violations ,and the state has until September 1 to come up with a new map. Alabama's lines are also up in the air after the Supreme Court sent a redistricting case back to a state court in March.

Those cases all center on whether the legislatures—all in Southern states with a history of voter discrimination—drew the lines in a way that packed minorities into certain districts, illegally reducing their electoral influence. A bigger question raised both by that set of court challenges and the Supreme Court case involving Arizona is whether partisan legislatures should be in the business of drawing district lines at all, given that the party in control clearly has an overwhelming incentive to manipulate (aka gerrymander) those lines to its benefit. Critics say that approach inevitably leads to voting districts that aren't representative and are dominated by one party, leading to more ideological representation in government.

As Ginsburg observed in the Supreme Court's Arizona decision, "Studies report 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 it seems logical that more competitive districts would force candidates to run to the center, not to the political poles, leading to the election of more moderates in state legislatures and Congress.

Politicians in a number of the states that have fought bitter court battles over redistricting are now calling for their governments to follow the lead of Arizona and California and adopt independent commissions for this very reason. Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California has even introduced legislation in Congress calling for independent redistricting commissions across the country.

But among academics, there's still fierce debate over whether gerrymandering is a root cause of the rise in partisanship in American politics—and whether, on the flip side, eliminating politicians' role in drawing districts will shrink the partisan gulf that's emerged in our government. There is a body of research that shows independent redistricting reduces the partisan voting behavior of legislators.

But there's also growing evidence that far bigger forces drive polarization, including the political realignment of the two parties into their own concentrated corners of the country and rising economic inequality. As Seth Masket, Jonathan Winburn and Gerald Wright wrote in the journal Political Science & Politics in 2012, "Evidence from state legislatures during the last decade suggests that the effects of partisan redistricting on competition and polarization are small, considerably more nuanced than reformers would suggest, and overwhelmed by other aspects of the political environment."