An exciting time to ensure fair legislative districts
Written by Miriah Elliott, Action Utah Issue Captain
What’s happening with redistricting in the Supreme Court?
This is an exciting time for the effort to ensure fair legislative districts! As you may have seen in the headlines, this week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Wisconsin case Whitford v. Gill. In that case, a lower court found that the Republican-led legislature in Wisconsin intentionally and unconstitutionally drew state legislative districts to favor Republicans and hurt Democratic candidates. For example, a year after the redistricting, Republicans only won 48.6 percent of the statewide vote, but they still won 60 of the state’s 99 legislative seats. Democrats, who had won a majority of the statewide vote only got 39. Further, there was evidence at trial that Republicans specifically intended draw the districts to favor their party.
Why does this case matter?
This case has now made its way to the Supreme Court. Courts have been hesitant in the past to get involved in reviewing maps for partisan gerrymandering, worrying about finding a workable standard to determine when it exists. However, with the use of complex computer models and formulas, the plaintiffs in Whitford v. Gill have come up with a method they think will work to convince the court. Other scholars around the country have also been working on a variety of methods to create fair districting. If the plaintiffs are able to convince the judges, this case could result in a historic ruling to prevent partisan gerrymandering once and for all.
How is the court case going?
The attitudes of the justices gleaned from their questions and comments during oral arguments were what many observers expected: While Justice Alito acknowledged that “gerrymandering is distasteful,” he indicated that he thought finding manageable standards would be unworkable; Justice Gorsuch mocked the various standards articulated, comparing them to “a pinch of this, a pinch of that” in his steak rub recipe; Justice Roberts worried that cases would constantly be brought about redistricting if the courts took the problem on and that they would have to decide which party won based on “sociological gobbledygook;” Justice Thomas, as is his practice, said nothing; Justice Ginsberg worried about the sanctity of the right to vote if one party could stack the deck against the other; both Justice Kagan and Justice Sotomayor noted that the same experts that could determine whether district lines were unconstitutional are the same experts Wisconsin relied on to design their maps to make them “more gerrymandered.”
The wild card and likely the deciding vote in this case is Justice Kennedy. In a previous case, Justice Kennedy conceded that extreme partisan gerrymandering could be declared unconstitutional if “manageable standards” could be developed for identifying when it occurs. Observers felt that Kennedy was cryptic about how he might rule, but talked about which provision of the constitution extreme gerrymandering might violate, and pushed the attorney for the Wisconsin legislature about the limits of their argument.
While the court’s decision won’t likely be issued until the spring, this case, and efforts to combat partisan gerrymandering have attracted high-profile members of both parties – including President Obama, former attorney general Eric Holder, Senator John McCain, Bob Dole, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and many others.
Why we care about this
At Action Utah, we agree with these politicians that fair boundaries are essential for good governance and fair representation for every voter. Utah voters seem to agree, with polls showing between 61-67% favor an independent commission to draw district lines in Utah rather than allowing politicians to choose their voters.
While cases about partisan gerrymandering are working their way through the courts, ordinary Utah citizens are working hard to put Utah’s redistricting in the hands of an independent redistricting commission, rather than in the hands of the legislature. The Better Boundaries ballot initiative needs to get 113,000 signatures throughout the state of Utah in order to get on the 2018 ballot.
What you can do
Help collect signatures for Better Boundaries by showing up (with proof of residency) to one of these volunteer trainings:
- Salt Lake – Tuesday, October 10 at 6pm at the Marmalade Library
- Riverton – Saturday, October 21, 2017 at 2pm at the Riverton Library
- St. George and other areas of Utah – coming soon
If you just want to sign a petition, you can:
- Show up at this signing event in Davis County TODAY from 5:00-7:00p in Davis County
- Go to “It’s Your Vote, Make it Count” in TOMORROW at 12:00-3:00p in Salt Lake City (this is a one-stop shop of local non-partisan organizations working on a variety of issues)
To find out more about how to get involved with Better Boundaries click here.
For additional information about the Whitford v. Gill case, check out these great articles:
NPR: “Partisan gerrymandering: how much is too much?”
Politico: “Supreme Court eyes partisan gerrymandering”
Chicago Tribune: “Supreme Court justices seem divided in key Wisconsin case about partisan districts”