From time to time, at least since 1898, the people in America’s states have decided to take government into their own hands, withdrawing it from elected politicians when the voters think they have done the job badly, or not at all. “Direct democracy” has cycles of popularity, and may be in a new one now, as political polarization spreads worry that elected lawmakers think party first and public good second. The Supreme Court looks into such a reclaiming of people power next week. No act of government is more partisan these days, it seems, than the redistricting process — that is, the drawing of new election district boundaries, usually to take account of population growth or shifts as measured in each national census. When Republicans are in power, they craft districts in their favor, and the Democrats do exactly the same when they hold power. As a result, fewer districts are actually competitive at election time. The Supreme Court has been asked several times to put some limits on “partisan gerrymandering,” but has refused each time. Now, the Court confronts an alternative approach in Arizona — a state that has been making regular use of “direct democracy” since even before it was admitted to the Union in 1912. From statehood until 2000, the state legislature had the authority under the state constitution to draw congressional district boundaries, subject to the governor’s veto.
But in 2000, Arizona voters approved Proposition 106, an amendment to the state constitution It assigned the task of redistricting congressional seats to a new independent redistricting commission, with five members.
The legislature was not cut entirely out of the process, but its role was limited to picking four of the five commission members (from a list given to them by a state judge-nominating commission) and commenting, if it wished to do so, on maps produced by the redistricting panel. (The fifth member of the panel, its chairman, was chosen by the other four members, picking from the same nominee list.)
Once the commission has drawn new maps for electing Arizona’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives (the state now has nine seats there), it sends them to the Arizona secretary of state, and then considers public comment and input from the legislature before finalizing the plans. After the 2010 census, the commission drew up a new plan, to remain in effect until the next round of redistricting after the 2020 census.