Today, March 2, 2015, the United State Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission. I am writing about it partly because my aunt, Colleen Coyle Mathis, is involved – as she was the chariwoman of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission – and because I think this is a really important case that is not getting as much attention as other cases being heard this session regarding Obamacare or gay marriage.
Some background: State legislatures throughout the country are usually in charge of drawing new voting district maps every ten years following the Census. As we know in Illinois, this can lead to some very strange-looking districts that usually serve the party in power of the state legislature at the time of the drawing of the maps. So, in Illinois, where Democrats have controlled the legislature since time immortal, you may find that a Democratic representative’s district that has become more conservative is suddenly redrawn to include a more liberal voting bloc and ensure that the incumbent representative has an easier path to re-election. Conversely, a ‘competitive’ district that has equal numbers of Republican and Democratic voters may be redrawn so that the district now includes a few extra Democratic voters thus making the district much more likely to tilt one way.
In Arizona, there was a similar issue – except in favor of Republicans. Surprisingly, Arizona voters are not as conservative as one may think – voter registration is roughly 35% Republican, 30% Democrat and 35% Independent. Despite that, Republican lawmakers there were able to draw districts so the Arizona congressional delegation and state legislature was always heavily in favor of Republicans. Here in Illinois, we have a Republican Senator and a Republican Governor – so when the state is not carved into jigsaw districts, we look pretty ‘competitive’. But, the Illinois House currently is over 60% Democrat. Of course, Illinois Democrats drew those districts following the 2010 census. In Arizona, voters passed a referendum in 2000, giving the power to draw legislative districts to an independent panel which would be made up of two Republican appointees, two Democratic appointees, and one independent appointee. This committee didn’t have to do any real heavy lifting until 2010 when new maps were to be drawn. Arizona has nine congressional districts. When the Committee was finished, they had drawn a map with four ‘safe Republican’ districts, two ‘safe Democratic’ districts and three ‘toss-up’ districts. This was not good enough for the Arizona Republicans in power and so the Republican governor, Jan Brewer, backed by Republicans in the Arizona Senate, fired the independent chairwoman (my Aunt Colleen), without giving any reason. (So, my aunt was basically shit-canned by the Arizona governor and her name dragged through the mud because the maps gave only four of the nine seats to Republicans and was going to make them work for the three ‘toss-ups’. I may be biased but Jan Brewer is a shitheel.) The Arizona Supreme Court unanimously overturned the governor, needing less than two hours to deliberate, finding she had no basis or authority for taking such action and reinstated the chairwoman.
So, having failed to toss out the Commission’s work that way, the state has decided that the Independent Commission, which was passed by voter referendum, is unconstitutional and has challenged its authority to the US Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court agrees with Arizona’s argument, then the Arizona Commission, as well as independent commissions in California and a dozen other states could be deemed unconstitutional and those state legislatures given full reign to draw their maps again.
In the congressional elections of 2012 and 2014, Arizona had some of the closest races in the nation; so, it appears voters there were given a real choice. A choice they asked for by passing a referendum creating an Independent Commission. So, the question is “do voters have the power to take control of drawing congressional districts away from state legislatures?” I sure hope they do and I would welcome a similar commission in Illinois. You may not hear as much about this case as you do other cases, but I think this one could effect a lot more people in a more direct way than a ruling on gay marriage. The Court will get to decide: Should voters be able to choose their representative or should representatives be able to choose their voters?