Supreme Court Voter Citizenship Proof

U.S. Supreme Court 

AP photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Whether democracy is served by allowing state legislators to set the boundaries of electoral districts is a question that will be exhaustively debated early in the New Year at what is being grandly termed a “summit.”

This august gathering is being organized by a reformist citizens' group, Fair Districts Louisiana, and LSU's Reilly Center for Media and Public Affairs.

America is the only advanced country that makes no show of a disinterested redistricting system. After every census, when legislators throughout the land start poring over their maps, their principal objective will be to ensure that the Republic retains the benefit of their own services, and is shielded from the perverse ideas of the other party.

This system, unique to America, is unlikely to receive the summit's blessing, but there is no need to be in any suspense about what would happen if, say, it should recommend that the task in Louisiana be entrusted to an independent commission. That would make sense to any rational observer, but it is the views of legislators that count and they are never inclined to limit their own powers.

Sure enough, Mike Danahay, D-Sulphur, chairman of the House committee in charge of redistricting, confirms that legislators have implicit faith in the current system. “Who better knows their districts than those lawmakers?” he says. Indeed, they probably know better than anyone how the lines can be adjusted to cover their own backsides.

Although doing so with a racial motive has long been deemed unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court has never outlawed the partisan gerrymander. It is due to rule next year, however, on a constitutional challenge to the redistricting plan in Wisconsin.

After the 2010 census, the Republicans invested a bunch of time and money into capturing state legislatures with the explicit purpose of shaping political districts. As Karl Rove pointed out at the time, he who controls legislators, controls Congress.

The Republican plan worked spectacularly well in various parts of the country, nowhere more so than in Wisconsin. After Republicans took over there, they put Democrats in highly concentrated clusters so that they would win fewer seats overall than their numbers warranted.

Federal courts ruled that such a heavy-handed self-dealing violated the Democrats' First Amendment right to free association and denied them the equal protection guaranteed by the Fourteenth.

Wisconsin appealed to the Supreme Court, so that we have yet another case that depends on which side Anthony Kennedy takes. The four rock-ribbed conservatives regard partisan gerrymandering as non judiciable, while the four relative liberals are believed to think the Wisconsin plan beyond the pale. Kennedy during oral arguments seemed persuaded by the Democrats' First Amendment claims, so maybe partisan gerrymandering will finally be verboten.

The right to vote is clearly meaningless if the outcome of elections is predetermined, as is frequently the case even without gerrymandering. A Democrat living in mossback territory can probably forget about voting for the winner in any election unless he moves or changes affiliation. But while nothing may be done about the natural imbalance of some districts, the gerrymander can be snuffed out without much difficulty. The constitution already requires districts to have the same population, so far as that is possible. One more level of scrutiny need be no great problem.

Legislators in Louisiana are clearly not going to cede the right to redraw districts, however. As Danahay points out, a boundaries commission may not be entirely disinterested either because “somebody's got to make that appointment.”

It is true that there is no point in trying to take the politics out of politics, but the public interest would no doubt get more attention from appointed commissioners than from legislators with a highly developed survival instinct.

But it may not make much difference who gets to redraw electoral districts in the future. Legislators will presumably relish the task much less if the Supreme Court decides they can gerrymander no more.

Email James Gill at Gill1407@bellsouth.net.