Editor’s Note: For full disclosure, Tom Mann (joined by Norm Ornstein) filed an amicus curiae brief in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.
James Madison would be pleased. The 5-4 decision announced today by the Supreme Court upholding Arizona’s use of the initiative to establish an independent redistricting commission is a model of constitutional reasoning and statutory interpretation. It underscores the essential connection between republican government and popular sovereignty, in which the people have the ultimate authority over who shall represent them in public office. The majority opinion quotes Madison to powerful effect: “The genius of republican liberty seems to demand . . . not only that all power should be derived from the people, but those entrusted with it should be kept in dependence on the people.”
Madison worried about the dangers of the manipulation of electoral rules to serve the immediate interests of political actors. He was himself the target of a gerrymander designed (unsuccessfully) to deny him a seat in the first Congress. The Elections Clause of the Constitution, by granting Congress the power to override state actions setting the time, place and manner of elections, was designed partly as a safety valve to contain the abuse of power by those in a position to determine which voters will hold them accountable.
Today’s intensely polarized politics drive major partisan campaigns to seize control of the redistricting authority in the states and to wield that power to boost prospects for majority standing in the House. Partisan gerrymandering is not the major source of our dysfunctional politics but it surely reinforces and exacerbates the tribal wars between the parties. A number of states have used the initiative device provided in their constitutions to establish independent commissions to replace or supplement the regular state legislative process in redrawing congressional and/or state legislative district boundaries. Such commissions are no panacea for partisan gerrymandering. Their composition and rules vary in ways that can shape the outcome. But the evidence suggests they can mitigate the conflicts of interest that are a part of the regular process and produce more timely plans less subject to judicial preemption.
The Court has upheld the right of those states to legislate electoral rules through a popular vote. Had the minority position prevailed, state laws governing many aspects of the electoral process would have been subject to constitutional challenge. And an important safety value available to the people of the states for responding to abuses of power by those in public office has been preserved.
This should not be read more broadly as a triumph of direct democracy over representative government. Many scholars who provided expert opinion supporting the majority opinion retain serious concerns about the overuse and misuse of initiatives and referendums. Instead, the decision strengthens the legitimacy of representative democracy by reinforcing the essential link between republican government and popular sovereignty.
Thomas Mann is a resident scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. A noted congressional scholar, Mann writes and speaks widely on American politics and policymaking, including campaigns, elections, campaign finance reform and the effectiveness of Congress. His most recent book, co-authored with Norman Ornstein, is It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.
This post also appeared on the Brookings Institution’s FixGov blog.