Their View: Allow voters say in drawing districts

The following editorial appeared in The New York Times.

The citizens of Arizona — like so many others nationwide — were long fed up with their elected officials drawing skewed electoral districts to keep themselves, and the majority party, in power.

Unlike much of the rest of the country, however, Arizonans did something about it. In 2000, they used the state’s voter-initiative process to amend the State Constitution, largely removing the redistricting power from the Legislature and giving it instead to a five-member independent commission.

The point was to increase electoral fairness and competition, as well as voter interest and participation. A few other states have established similar commissions for similar reasons. And, in Arizona, it appears to be working. In the 15 years since the commission took over, the mapmaking process has become more transparent, and districts have become more competitive.

But the state’s legislators were predictably unhappy with this arrangement, so they sued the commission, claiming that they had been unconstitutionally shut out of the process of drawing congressional districts. (The commission’s authority over redistricting of state legislative seats is not being challenged.)

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case. The justices are well-aware of the damage that partisan gerrymandering has inflicted on the democratic process, but they generally stay away from the issue, which some of them have said is not amenable to a judicial solution.

As a result, the sordid, familiar reality of gerrymandering was mostly absent from the argument. The justices focused at length on the perceived intent of the U.S. Constitution’s framers regarding federal elections. What did they mean when they entrusted those election rules to the state “legislature”? Does that term include a ballot initiative like the one that passed in Arizona?

The Legislature’s lawyer argued that even though the voters established the commission, it is unelected and unaccountable to them. (The Legislature selects four of the five members from a list provided by a separate state agency.)

Americans need to have more direct control over the integrity of the electoral process, which has been weakened by, among other things, increasingly sophisticated methods of carving up districts and destroying political competition.

Voters in dozens of states have, in fact, skipped over their legislatures to pass scores of laws or amendments setting out electoral rules, from eligibility requirements to redistricting - all of which might be called into question depending on how the court rules.

Meanwhile, state legislatures, whether led by Republicans or Democrats, have shown a boundless capacity to operate in their own self-interest, rigging the system to block any real challenges to their incumbency. If voters have no meaningful way to break that cycle, the promise of representative government rings hollow.