Supreme Court to Decide Another “One-Person, One-Vote” Case

It takes only common sense to know that whoever is in charge of redistricting would prefer to gerrymander in their favor as much possible.

The irony of the Supreme Court agreeing to decide Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission is inescapable. On June 29 in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission the Court held that Arizona’s redistricting commission could be solely responsible for congressional redistricting. In the first sentence of its opinion the Court noted Arizona voters adopted the commission to avoid partisan gerrymandering. The next day the Court agreed to decide Harris where the plaintiffs allege that Arizona’s redistricting commission engaged in partisan gerrymandering in state legislative redistricting that violated one-person, one-vote. 

It is noteworthy that the Harris plaintiffs don’t object to partisan gerrymander per se (which the Supreme Court has never held unconstitutional), just partisan gerrymandering that leads to unequal distribution of voters.

Arizona was a “covered” jurisdiction under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Until the Supreme Court ruled that the coverage formula was unconstitutional in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Department of Justice (DOJ) had to approve all changes to Arizona’s state legislative redistricting plans.

In 2012 the commission set a goal of creating 10 districts where minorities would have an ability to elect a candidate of their choice. The commission stated that it underpopulated some minority districts to strengthen minorities’ ability to elect the candidate of their choice, so that DOJ would be more likely to pre-clear its plan. The plaintiffs claim the commission underpopulated those minority ability-to-elect districts to favor Democrats. They note districts underpopulated by more than 2 percent had a Democrat plurality of registered voters and districts overpopulated by more than 2 percent had a Republican plurality.

Per “one-person, one vote” legislative districts must have nearly equal population. Total population deviation in Arizona’s plan is about 9 percent. Plaintiffs must prove that population deviations in state legislative districts of less than 10% aren’t the result of legitimate redistricting policies.

The plaintiffs claim that partisan gerrymandering can’t justify deviating from one-person, one vote and that violating one-person, one vote to obtain preclearance wasn’t a legitimate justification before or after Shelby County.

Two of the three judges in this case found that the commission was primarily motivated by a desire to obtain pre-clearance. So it did not matter that the commission was also motivated by a desire to favor Democrats.

A majority of the court concluded that trying to comply with the VRA could justify minor population deviations. Judge Clifton reasoned:  “we fail to see how compliance with a federal law concerning voting rights—compliance which is mandatory for a redistricting plan to take effect—cannot justify minor population deviations when, for example, protecting incumbent legislators can.”

The plaintiffs argued that since preclearance is no longer a requirement following Shelby County relying on complying with the VRA could no longer justify population deviations. A majority of the judges disagreed noting that Shelby County had not been decided when the map was drawn up in this case.

Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog “makes simple” this case and another redistricting case the Court has accepted for next term, Evenwell v. Abbott, regarding whether total voter population must be equalized to comply with one-person, one-vote.