Tuesday, January 27, 2015
by JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Human Rights Institute, Columbia Law School
The U.S. prides itself on free and fair elections. Indeed, the Constitution and federal law guarantee equality in voting: the “one person, one vote” standard was enunciated by the Supreme Court in the 1960s as a means to address vastly skewed voting power resulting from districts with unequal populations.
This simple phrase – “one person, one vote” – belies the complex nature of elections in the United States. In order to foster the idea that each person’s vote counts in our at large system, federal elections districts drawn “as mathematically equal as possible,” while state and local districts are supposed to be drawn through an “honest and good faith effort” to ensure equal populations. (The ACLU has explained these standards and the underlying case law here). But, in the majority of states, districting falls to legislators (in others, districting commissions have authority to draw districts). That means in most jurisdictions, those who are in charge of districting are individuals with a vested interest in maintaining power. This system is one rife with potential for abuse.
Indeed, it has led to rampant gerrymandering. In general, gerrymandering is the act of altering political boundaries with the intent to impact election outcomes. Perhaps the most well-known form of gerrymandering is racial. Indeed, the Voting Rights Act was developed to prevent the dilution of minority votes – yet its protections are unfortunately being chipped away. Another variation is partisan gerrymandering, i.e., the “practice of dividing a geographical area into electoral districts, often of highly irregular shape, to give one political party an unfair advantage by diluting the opposition’s voting strength.” This slicing and dicing of districts to protect a particular party or favor a particular candidate is another way that districting curtails truly free and fair elections.
While much seems at stake, the Supreme Court has been reticent to step in to curtail these practices. Indeed, last year’s decision in Shelby v. Holder struck down some protections of the Voting Rights Act that address racially discriminatory gerrymandering. In the arena of partisan gerrymandering, the Supreme Court more or less thrown up its hands over a decade ago. In 2004, a plurality decision by Justice Scalia opined that there is “no judicially discernible and manageable standards” to adjudicate claims of partisan gerrymandering. This means that presently there is little recourse for those whose votes, and voices, are marginalized by partisan line drawing.
So, what can be done? Advocates are taking these concerns to the international human rights community to put pressure on the United States to ensure elections are truly representative. The relevant human rights protections are strongly worded. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrines the right to “take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives” and guarantees a fundamental cornerstone of democracy, that “[t]he will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; [as] expressed in periodic and genuine elections.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights echoes these protections and the Race Convention further guarantees the right to vote.
In its recent review of the United States’ human rights record, the CERD Committee expressed concern about the “obstacles faced by individuals belonging to racial and ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples to effectively exercise their right to vote, due inter alia to restrictive voter identification laws, district gerrymandering, and state-level felon disenfranchisement laws.” The Committee called for federal legislation to address discriminatory impact of voting regulations, voting rights for felons and DC residents and efforts to ensure indigenous peoples can effectively exercise the vote.
There are ongoing legislative efforts to address some of these concerns, including passage of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. Placing districting power in the hands of independent bodies rather than legislators is another proposal reform. Another recommendation to address partisan gerrymandering is removing discretion altogether and utilizing computer models to generate district maps.
Yet, it is unclear whether current legislative reforms or judicial intervention can truly foster compliance with human rights norms within our current winner take all election system (also known as “first past the post”). More drastic steps may be necessary to ensure the will of the people is the basis of the government and representatives are freely chosen.
Alternatives to “winner take all” models do exist. They are employed in countries around the world, as well as in some U.S. jurisdictions. One is Ranked Choice Voting, or Alternative Voting (AV), which is used in Cambridge, MA, San Francisco, CA and Australia. Another is Mixed Member Proportional Representation, the means for choosing representatives in Germany, New Zealand and others. These videos offer an introduction to Alternative Voting and Proportional Representation
What solutions would you propose?