Today’s Supreme Court decision in Arizona Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission had the potential to be a real blockbuster. But instead, this sleeper case turned out to be the sleepy case it should have been all along. All the Court did was maintain the status quo: In a 5–4 decision, it allowed the people of Arizona to continue to use an independent redistricting commission to draw congressional district lines — a reform voters adopted by ballot initiative in 2000 after years of partisan gerrymandering, litigation, and other legislative abuses. The decision also left untouched redistricting commissions in California, Idaho, Hawaii, and New Jersey, as well as a wide range of other citizen-initiated election laws in two dozen states that many feared might be deemed unconstitutional. In other words, on a practical level, it changed nothing.
But the case is nonetheless notable for two reasons.
First, it is remarkable how close we came to a radical, game-changing decision. Four dissenting Justices, if they had their way, would have held that the U.S. Constitution limits the ability of states to allow anyone other than self-interested state legislatures to have a say over how elections are conducted. Not only would that have changed how many states pass election laws — and have done so for more nearly 100 years — but it also would have dramatically increased the power of partisans over election rules.
By not going down that road, the Court left open what historically has been one of the few effective tools citizens have had not only to combat partisan gerrymandering, but to enact other election reforms like Washington State’s top-two primary system. A loss could have threatened election laws in 25 states. Fortunately, we dodged that bullet. But the closeness of the decision is an uncomfortable reminder of how little restraint the Court has shown in recent years on democracy issues (remember Citizens United? Shelby County?) — and how much work is still needed to achieve a fair constitutional democracy.
Second, the case is remarkable in its affirmation of the centrality of voters to our constitutional order. After explaining what the Constitution’s Elections Clause does not do — restrict the ways states can enact legislation — the majority noted that the Clause was in fact “intended to act as a safeguard against manipulation of electoral rules by politicians and factions in the State to entrench themselves or place their interests above the electorate.” [emphasis added]
This is incredibly important, and it speaks to some of the primary challenges facing our democracy today. In both the redistricting and voting contexts, Americans have been battling widespread efforts by politicians to manipulate election rules for their own gain. These efforts are inconsistent with basic constitutional values, and today’s decision makes clear that both Congress and states are empowered to take steps prevent that.
This principle was reinforced by another order the Supreme Court issued today — rejecting a petition to hear Kobach v. U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a case involving attempts by Arizona and Kansas to require documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote in federal elections, even though such documents are not required on the federal voter registration form. The Court let stand a 10th Circuit ruling, also based on the Elections Clause, that prevents states from manipulating election procedures so as to override basic federal voter registration protections.
In short, voters won big today in the U.S. Supreme Court. Now the important work of protecting our elections from political manipulation can continue.