The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that political district maps drawn to favor partisan interests cannot be challenged in federal court shortchanges voters across the country.
With 36 of America’s 50 statehouses under single-party control and the 2020 Census looming, heavy-handed politicians are empowered to draw district lines that all but lock in legislative majorities. Manipulative redistricting has been abused since the early years of the American republic. The manipulation that became famous in 1812’s “gerrymander” coinage has evolved to a data-driven process called “packing and cracking” for how lawmakers can carve up voting blocs to scatter political strength.
As former President Barack Obama has warned, this unfair mapmaking stymies governments from being truly representative and responsive. American voters must not be treated like pawns in political gamesmanship.
A growing number of states wisely have followed Washington state to create independent commissions to draw up maps with minimal political interest. A voter-approved 1983 amendment to Washington’s constitution created our elegant mechanism: Each of the Legislature’s four partisan caucuses gets one appointee — officeholders and lobbyists are ineligible — and those four commissioners pick a fifth member who presides but cannot vote on decisions.
It is heartening to see more states similarly entrust independent commissions with drawing voting districts. Four states joined the handful already on that list in 2018 alone. Every state in America should consider following suit now that the U.S. Supreme Court has abdicated its ability to ensure democratic fairness.
Chief Justice John Roberts bears special responsibility for dismantling this safeguard of court oversight, both as the swing vote of the 5-4 decision and the author of the majority opinion. The opinion’s limited view of judicial authority has troubling implications for upcoming Supreme Court decisions on cases that challenge President Donald Trump’s abuses of executive power.
Closer to home for Washington, Roberts previously signaled that he would be receptive to a court case to eliminate all redistricting commissions. In 2015, he dissented from the majority that upheld Arizona’s redistricting commission. Roberts wrote that the U.S. Constitution requires state legislatures to handle congressional redistricting directly, but only three justices joined him. Since that decision, Trump’s two appointees have bolstered the ranks of conservative votes on the court.
Washington voters should cherish the commission voted into the state’s constitution to ensure systemic fairness. It is a proud model for others to emulate. Because Roberts’ leadership of the Supreme Court has cleared a path for partisan mapmaking elsewhere, Washington’s leaders must take notice that our cherished defense against it may well be imperiled before the court’s composition changes.