Chief Justice Roberts OKs Minority Rule

If you’re a Republican, the demographic trends look bleak: Each cycle, your party’s core voters (white Evangelicals) become a smaller portion of the overall electorate. Worse, your positions on social issues (like gay rights) are turning off young voters, even if they’re straight and white, and your leaders target the fastest growing demographic (Hispanics) with vitriol almost every day.

You could try to change all that by shifting your positions. That’s what an RNC report recommended after Mitt Romney’s 2012 loss. But the party decided to go another way: Figure out ways to stay in power with fewer votes.

Minority rule. In certain ways, the US system already favors a Republican minority: Small red states like Wyoming or the Dakotas have just as many senators as liberal California, and the Electoral College tilts towards small states. But that natural advantage can be expanded: Voter suppression in Georgia allowed Republicans to keep the governorship there. And, of course, unlimited campaign spending helps Republican candidates win elections they otherwise might not.

But the real pillar of minority rule is gerrymandering. If you draw the districts properly, you can remain in power even if most voters are against you. And if you’re in a state where you have a small majority of voters, you can get a supermajority of seats in the legislature, allowing you to twist the system to your advantage in all sorts of ways.

Take Virginia for example. In 2017, Democrats overwhelmingly won the popular vote in House of Delegate elections, 53%-44%. All the seats were up for election, so you’d think they’d get control, wouldn’t you?

Such a quaint notion! In fact, Virginia delegate districts are gerrymandered all to hell, with the result that Republicans stayed in power: 51 seats to the Democrats’ 49. Apparently, Democrats would have to win by at least double digits to break the Republican dominance.

Same thing in Michigan. In the 2018 elections for the Michigan House, Democrats won the popular vote 52%-47%, but Republicans kept a six-seat majority, 58-52.

On the other hand, you have North Carolina. In 2016, Republicans won the popular vote in the NC House elections, 52%-47%, similar to the Democrats’ Michigan margin in 2018. But with a different result: Republicans got an overwhelming 74-46 majority of the seats. The Republican legislative supermajority was what allowed it to change the rules when a Democrat won the governorship. Maybe the voters still can give statewide offices to Democrats, but gerrymandering lets the legislature strip power away from those offices once Democrats win them.

That’s the essence of gerrymandering today: You don’t really need a majority of voters to keep power, and even a small majority will give you a constitution-amending supermajority, along with the ability to override the vetoes of any governor that the voters manage to elect over your opposition.

Best of all, it’s self-reinforcing: If the other party can’t break your hold on the legislature, then you get to improve your gerrymander every time there’s a new census!

The minority-rule Supreme Court. The Republican minority-rule majority in the Senate allowed Mitch McConnell to block President Obama’s last nominee to the Supreme Court, and to hold the seat open until President Trump (elected with only 46% of the vote) could fill it, as well as name a second justice after Antonin Scalia died. So the Court has a 5-4 conservative majority rather than the 6-3 liberal majority it would have if American voters had actually gotten their way.

So when a gerrymandering case came to the Court this term, it gave the five conservative judges a moral challenge: Defend democracy, or defend the partisan minority that appointed you?

None of them rose to that challenge.

The case. Ostensibly, the case was non-partisan, because it paired a Republican gerrymander in North Carolina with a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland. Both concerned districts for the federal House of Representatives.

But in the larger context the case was very partisan, because nationwide, the Republican Party has embraced gerrymandering whole-heartedly, while Democrats have hung back. When Democrats took over the House of Representatives in January, the first thing it passed was H.R. 1, which banned gerrymandering of congressional districts. (It’s not clear whether Congress has any power over gerrymandering of state elections.) But of course, that bill has never come up for a vote in Mitch McConnell’s minority-rule Senate.

John Roberts’ opinion. There was never any doubt that Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh would take a partisan Republican position. The question mark was Chief Justice Roberts, who ended up writing the majority opinion.

The gist of his opinion is that while of course he personally finds partisan gerrymandering to be a despicable practice, he can only wring his hands, because the law does not allow him to do anything to stop it.

Chief Justice Marshall famously wrote that it is “the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Sometimes, however, “the law is that the judicial department has no business entertaining the claim of unlawfulness—because the question is entrusted to one of the political branches or involves no judicially enforceable rights.” In such a case the claim is said to present a “political question” and to be nonjusticiable—outside the courts’ competence and therefore beyond the courts’ jurisdiction. Among the political question cases the Court has identified are those that lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving [them].” …

We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts. Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.

The picture he paints is that if the Court interfered at all, then it would be forced to come up with its own answers to questions that ought to be decided by the political branches of government: How should districts be designed? What does it mean for an election to have a “fair” outcome? And so on.

He points out that gerrymandering happened in the era of the Founders, and that their solution to it was to balance state legislatures’ decisions against the check of the federal Congress, not the courts. He points out all the ways that political forces inside the states might defeat gerrymandering without court intervention:

Indeed, numerous other States are restricting partisan considerations in districting through legislation. One way they are doing so is by placing power to draw electoral districts in the hands of independent commissions. For example, in November 2018, voters in Colorado and Michigan approved constitutional amendments creating multimember commissions that will be responsible in whole or in part for creating and approving district maps for congressional and state legislative districts. Missouri is trying a different tack. Voters there overwhelmingly approved the creation of a new position—state demographer—to draw state legislative district lines.

Kagan’s dissent. Justice Elena Kagan acknowledges Roberts’ points, and gives a “close, but no cigar” response to each.

Yes, the Founders knew about gerrymandering, the same way that they knew about firearms. (My analogy, not hers.) But the modern version is a different animal entirely.

Yes, partisan gerrymandering goes back to the Republic’s earliest days. (As does vociferous opposition to it.) But big data and modern technology—of just the kind that the mapmakers in North Carolina and Maryland used—make today’s gerrymandering altogether different from the crude linedrawing of the past. Old-time efforts, based on little more than guesses,sometimes led to so-called dummymanders—gerrymanders that went spectacularly wrong. Not likely in today’s world.

And the thing Roberts said was impossible — judging that the gerrymanders in question were unacceptable without imposing your own vision of fair design and fair outcomes — was exactly what the lower courts had done.

The approach—which also has recently been used in Michigan and Ohio litigation—begins by using advanced computing technology to randomly generate a large collection of districting plans that incorporate the State’s physical and political geography and meet its declared districting criteria, except for partisan gain. For each of those maps, the method then uses actual precinct-level votes from past elections to determine a partisan outcome (i.e., the number of Democratic and Republican seats that map produces). Suppose we now have 1,000 maps, each with a partisan outcome attached to it. We can line up those maps on a continuum—the most favorable to Republicans on one end, the most favorable to Democrats on the other. We can then find the median outcome—that is, the outcome smack dab in the center—in a world with no partisan manipulation. And we can see where the State’s actual plan falls on the spectrum—at or near the median or way out on one of the tails? The further out on the tail, the more extreme the partisan distortion and the more significant the vote dilution.

The North Carolina plaintiffs randomly produced 3,000 districting maps that meet the legal criteria. All of them were more favorable to Democrats than the one the legislature adopted.

Under [the lower courts’] approach, in other words, the State selected its own fairness baseline in the form of its other districting criteria. All the courts did was determine how far the State had gone off that track because of its politicians’ effort to entrench themselves in office. …

The plaintiffs asked only that the courts bar politicians from entrenching themselves in power by diluting the votes of their rivals’ supporters. And the courts, using neutral and manageable—and eminently legal—standards, provided that (and only that) relief. This Court should have cheered, not overturned, that restoration of the people’s power to vote.

And finally, Kagan examined Roberts’ faith that the political system would fix this problem on its own.

The majority disagrees, concluding its opinion with a paean to congressional bills limiting partisan gerrymanders. “Dozens of [those] bills have been introduced,” the majority says. One was “introduced in 2005 and has been reintroduced in every Congress since.” And might be reintroduced until the end of time. Because what all these bills have in common is that they are not laws. The politicians who benefit from partisan gerrymandering are unlikely to change partisan gerrymandering. And because those politicians maintain themselves in office through partisan gerrymandering, the chances for legislative reform are slight.

No worries, the majority says; it has another idea. The majority notes that voters themselves have recently approved ballot initiatives to put power over districting in the hands of independent commissions or other non-partisan actors. Some Members of the majority, of course, once thought such initiatives unconstitutional. But put that aside. Fewer than half the States offer voters an opportunity to put initiatives to direct vote; in all the rest (including North Carolina and Maryland), voters are dependent on legislators to make electoral changes (which for all the reasons already given, they are unlikely to do). And even when voters have a mechanism they can work themselves, legislators often fight their efforts tooth and nail. Look at Missouri. There, the majority touts a voter-approved proposal to turn districting over to a state demographer. But before the demographer had drawn a single line, Members of the state legislature had introduced a bill to start undoing the change. I’d put better odds on that bill’s passage than on all the congressional proposals the majority cites.

She concludes:

Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one. The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government. Part of the Court’s role in that system is to defend its foundations. None is more important than free and fair elections.

Potemkin democracy. My interpretation of these opinions is that Roberts (and the minority-rule court majority he leads) has no interest in actual democracy, just Potemkin democracy. As long as we have “elections” in which people vote and votes are tabulated, he’s satisfied. If the system has been rigged so that the same people win all the time, well, that’s just politics. And the Roberts Court is above politics.

What I think we should never lose sight of is how all these minority-rule actions build on each other, and then wrap around to cycle through again. A minority-rule Senate and a minority-rule President have given us a minority-rule Court. The Court now is returning the favor, helping the ever-shrinking conservative minority to maintain its hold on power into the indefinite future.

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  • Jeff R.  On July 1, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    I contribute and volunteer for OneVirginia2021, an organization devoted to ending gerrymandering in Virginia. Through substantial effort, the state legislatures passed what will be an amendment to Virginia’s constitution. This has to pass again in the upcoming legislative session. And then, it is put forward to the voters, as in the public, for their approval. What I’m saying is that the implementation costs to realize such a change on a state level is huge.

    • weeklysift  On July 1, 2019 at 12:57 pm

      For everybody’s sake, I hope you stick with it. This kind of effort is one of the few paths left open to people who want to save democracy in America.

  • ADeweyan  On July 1, 2019 at 3:58 pm

    No one has the answer to this, but if the power of government comes from the consent of the governed, at what point does the un-represented majority withdraw consent, and what does that mean? Protest? Tax revolt? Violent revolution?

  • Anonymous  On July 1, 2019 at 9:26 pm

    This seems like a good time to mention the American Anti-Corruption Act, which addresses gerrymandering, as well as lobbying, dark money, and a few other things:


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