A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld Arizona’s nonpartisan redistricting commission also is a victory for Washington.
Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature wasn’t happy when a voter-initiated constitutional amendment yanked the job of redrawing congressional and legislative boundaries from lawmakers and handed it to a panel balanced with members from both parties. The Legislature sued, but the court, in a 5-4 vote, said the change passed constitutional muster.
Washington also has a nonpartisan commission that was the product of decades of gerrymandering fights.
Redistricting, when new boundaries are drawn based on population changes, takes place every 10 years. It’s often used as an opportunity for the party in power to solidify that dominance.
The battles in Washington culminated in 1981, when the Republican-led Legislature drew up new congressional and legislative districts. Among other changes, the new congressional map split Spokane in two with the hope that long-serving Rep. Tom Foley, a Democrat, could be unseated. Then-Gov. John Spellman, a Republican, vetoed the new congressional boundaries, calling them too partisan.
Fed up with the long-running conflict, the Legislature launched a referendum amending the state constitution to establish the five-member nonpartisan commission that exists today. Voters approved, and it was adopted in 1983.
The two legislative party caucuses select two members each to serve on the commission. Then those four members select a fifth, a nonvoting chairman. That’s the same structure that survived the Supreme Court challenge in Arizona.
The Arizona situation is somewhat different because the process was begun by a citizens’ initiative. Nonetheless, if the ruling had gone the other way, it could have opened up Washington’s system to a possible legal challenge.
In addition, Monday’s ruling also served to bolster initiatives themselves. The majority opinion stated that while the Founding Fathers may not have imagined today’s direct democracy, it’s reasonable to believe they would accept a process that derives its power from the people.
Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman lauded the ruling for affirming the initiative process and supporting nonpartisan redistricting, which “provides an arms-length separation from redistricting and those who stand to benefit or lose as lines are redrawn.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion, beautifully summed up the argument for taking redistricting away from elected officials. She noted that Arizona voters wanted to restore “the core principle” of our republic. That is, “that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.”
That’s the choice Washington voters made more than 30 years ago.
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