June 15, 2015 — It’s very possible that a large number of the nation’s congressional districts will be re-drawn before the next census; the key unanswered question is, will most of it happen before the next regular vote, or will the district line adjustment process be pushed forward to the 2018 election cycle?
The US Supreme Court has been active in cases involving the Voting Rights Act (VRA) and methodology used to draw congressional districts. They first struck down a key VRA section in the Shelby County (AL) case that virtually eliminated the pre-clearance requirement associated with Voting Rights Act, Section V. This took a great deal of redistricting power away from the federal government (Department of Justice) and strengthened the states.
Awaiting a decision to be released before the end of the month is the Arizona congressional commission case. In this instance, Grand Canyon State Republicans filed suit against the voter-created special redistricting commission that has power to create state legislative and congressional districts. The Arizona Republicans are challenging the legitimacy of the commission itself, arguing that the US Constitution gives power to redistrict the House of Representatives only to the state legislatures.
Legal experts suggest the Arizona Republicans have a 50/50 chance of prevailing, and most agree the final vote will be 5-4, one way or the other.
But, the decision will have ramifications beyond the borders of the fast-growing southwestern state. Other states with similar commissions would likely be affected, too. Therefore, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and Washington would probably see their congressional maps invalidated.
From a practical perspective, the lines in Hawaii, Idaho, and Montana won’t likely be changed. Hawaii and Idaho are two district and one-party states. Thus, boundary changes won’t alter the congressional delegation’s political standing. Montana is even more clear-cut. As an at-large state, the Big Sky Country has only one seat.
The Republican legislature and governor would re-draw Arizona, while the Democratic California legislature and governor would do the same in the Golden State. Significant changes could occur in these two places.
New Jersey and Washington have split government, so it’s conceivable that the compromise in both places might simply be to formally ratify the current commission map. In both states, Republican congressional representation (NJ: 6R-6D; WA: 6D-4R) exceeds their political strength. Therefore, it is in the GOP’s interest to attempt to ratify a no-change map. Whether the Democrats would attempt to increase their standing remains to be seen. An impasse would likely force further court action, and that might make both sides uncomfortable.
Recently, the Supreme Court also sided with the Alabama Democrats over how the state legislative districts are drawn in relation to minority voters. Though the high court stated the Republican map drawers adhered to Voting Rights Act criteria in constructing the map, the result still packed African-American voters in too few districts.
Since the court is using the Alabama case as at least a quasi-benchmark decision, other similar cases are also affected. Instead of being more definitive, the court returned the maps to the courts of origin, ordering changes and adjustments. Last week, the special Virginia three-judge panel returned that state’s congressional map to the legislature with a directive to produce a new map by Sept. 1. Now with Democrat Terry McAuliffe as governor to balance the Republican legislature, arriving at a new map that will certainly weaken the GOP’s standing may be difficult. If they can’t reach consensus, the three judges say, the court itself will re-draw after the Sept. 1 deadline.
Texas and North Carolina will also likely see maps returning to their legislatures to make changes. The Virginia action could then begin to affect maps in many other states, particularly in the south, and we will likely see legal action being soon brought where it is not currently underway.
Finally, earlier this month, SCOTUS agreed to hear another voting rights case, this one from Texas involving the eligible voter classification. Currently, districts contain the same number of inhabitants, referred to as “total population.” The Texas case, Evenwel vs. Abbott argues that this criteria should be changed to eligible voters. If the court agrees with the plaintiffs, the ruling will largely affect Hispanic districts throughout the country.
Both sides will make moves and counter-moves once the maps are returned to the states. It is likely that we will see many re-draws in the next couple of years, some featuring major changes, others minor. What we do know is that a large number of House districts could potentially change well before the next census and reapportionment. The questions of how, when, and where are still yet to be answered.