The U.S. Supreme Court just didn’t pass the buck on the issue of gerrymandering. It refused to carry out its duty to uphold basic constitutional protections. The ruling makes the passage of Missouri’s Amendment 1 last November even more significant.
Instead of standing up for democracy, the high court stood down, deciding that legal claims for redress were “beyond the reach of the federal courts.” The power should stay in the hands of state legislature no matter how racist, partisan or undemocratic these bodies were.
The SCOTUS opinion was a crushing blow for states needing some relief from the power-grabbing hands of Republican-dominated state legislatures.
Some of us anticipated that the fight for voter rights was moving into a new era when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder) in 2013. It opened the gates for the GOP to run buck wild with an aggressive voter suppression campaign that included stepping up gerrymandering to consolidate power. Unfortunately, the Democratic Party was slow to realize the impact and even slower to put its own offensive efforts into play.
The GOP now has a super-majority in 30 state houses. Scary. In eight of those states, there is a Democratic governor thanks to voters.
Take Wisconsin, for example. Unlike Missouri, it has a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer and U.S. senator. Democrats also won roughly 53 percent of the statewide vote for House seats but only took home 36 percent of the seats. Yet Republicans are still in control based on the redistricting map the party drew in 2011.
The Wisconsin voters’ lifeline is that Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat who was elected last year, has veto power. He’s vowed to use all the powers of his office to guarantee that elections will be fair and accessible. Should the state assembly come up with a partisan, gerrymandered map, Governor Evers stands ready with the proverbial veto pen.
Since the SCOTUS ruling in 2013, forward-thinking stakeholders in Missouri started to scrutinize our political reality. We knew we couldn’t rely on the good graces of a Republican governor nor the stacked state and federal courts to look out for us. That’s why a progressive coalition took matters into its own hands and worked to present a ballot initiative to voters last November to address redistricting, campaign finance and political lobbying. Amendment 1, also known as Clean Missouri, was overwhelmingly passed by voters across the state.
The importance of Amendment 1 has now come front and center, particularly the component on redistricting.
Before the passage of Amendment 1, Missouri was one of a handful of states whose redistricting map was done by a commission of equally appointed Republican and Democrats. The map had to be approved by 70 percent of the commission members.
Under the new scenario, the redistricting map is in the hands of a state demographer whose selection process and qualifications were carefully crafted to minimize any political shenanigans. The district maps must follow a list of strict criteria spelled out in the constitutional amendment designed to create districts based on “partisan fairness and competitiveness.”
Any changes would still have to be approved by 70 percent of the commissioners, but it must also adhere to the Amendment 1’s criteria for fair redistricting – rooted in the language and spirit of the national Voting Rights Act. Not to comply with the law is a crime.
Our intent was to take district mapping out of the hands of politicians looking out for special interests. There are opportunities for accountability on several levels along the way. Elected officials, community leaders and voters must all be woke if we are serious about protecting and expanding voting rights. Our fight is to make sure the new law is followed every step of the way as the primary way to guarantee fairer voting districts and reduce gerrymandering.
Missouri will be a test ground on how we approach the census and redistricting. Given the political terrain, defenders of democracy have a big fight on our hands. Together, it’s a fight we must organize to win.