The Supreme Court’s decision to stay on the sidelines on the issue of partisan gerrymandering is a blow to anyone concerned about fairness in elections.
And for Hoosiers looking for redistricting reform to end elected officials choosing their voters — instead of the other way around?
The high court’s 5-4 decision was “a big, big disappointment,” says Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, a watchdog group advocating for redistricting reform.
The court ruled that partisan redistricting is a political question — not reviewable by federal courts — and that those courts can’t judge if extreme gerrymandering violates the Constitution. The upshot is that the federal courts cannot strike down district maps because they are designed to help or hurt a particular political party.
Vaughn calls the decision “outrageous” and “really cowardly.”
This decision reverberates here in Indiana, where advocates for fair elections already face an uphill battle trying to change the status quo. Under the current system, the legislature is responsible for drawing its own legislative and congressional districts — a system that both Republicans and Democrats have taken advantage of over the years. This has resulted in maps that make it easy for incumbents to get re-elected and nearly impossible for challengers to be competitive.
Had the Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling and allowed for an objective standard to judge whether or not maps have been drawn too partisan or not, it wouldn’t have had a “direct impact” here in Indiana, Vaughn allows. “But it would have provided some real motivation for legislators” she says.
“They would have understood that the jig is up in terms of partisan gerrymandering.”
Instead, Hoosiers looking to end this unfair system are in the unenviable position of having to make the change via legislators — the very people who benefit from keeping things the way they are. Hoosiers don’t have the option of taking such initiatives to the ballot, which is the route states such as Michigan and Ohio took to pass reforms.
“We’ve always had the far tougher row to hoe getting legislators to give up control of something that has an incredible impact on their ability to win elections,” Vaughn says. “It’s a big ask, so we really needed the Supreme Court to sort of give us a boost.”
The court’s failure to provide that boost doesn’t mean that Hoosiers will give up on reform, Vaughn says. The ultimate goal is the establishment of a citizens redistricting commission, so expect to see such a bill introduced (again) during the next legislative session. But other measures also will be introduced, measures that Vaughn says will have a positive impact on making redistricting more transparent and more friendly to public participation. One would ensure that the public would have an opportunity to see draft maps so they could provide input on them.
Vaughn thinks these lesser measures aren’t long shots.
But it all starts with the public. The Supreme Court may have declined to set limits on partisan gerrymandering, may have washed its hands on the fight to protect voters’ constitutional rights. But Hoosier voters don’t have to sit on the sidelines. Talk to your legislators, tell them that you care about free and fair elections — and that they should too.