It is understandable that supporters of redistricting reform would root hard for victory in the Supreme Court for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.  Discounting the claim that there is a unique constitutional problem with the Arizona initiative–that it completely “cuts the legislature out” of redistricting–they fear a broad ruling with adverse effects beyond Arizona on various kinds of independent commissions.

But the suggestion that what is at stake is “democracy” has been pushed far.  Noah Feldman writes, for example, that initiatives constitute a crucial response to what “special interests” can do to “distort what happens in state legislatures.”  Of course, initiatives are also not free of distortions.  Success in the initiative process can go to the side with the most money; initiative campaigns do not necessarily qualify as the most informative or accurate in the presentation of their case; ballot language can be confusing to voters; and so forth.

In a study published in 2007,  Nicholas Stephanopolous has explored the factors that account for the victory or defeat of redistricting reform initiatives.  The Arizona initiative succeeded in 2000 for a variety of reasons he carefully analyzes.  Strong financial backing mattered: a wealthy individual supplied much the funding for the proponents. Another major asset was the The Arizona Republic’s intense commitment  to making the case for reform.  Stephanopolous also points to a favorable alignment of political forces, in particular a split within Republican ranks, which weakened opposition to the initiative (and presumably contributed to its funding disadvantage).

Stephanopolous concludes, however, that in states where the legislative majority is unified and energetic in opposition, and so better positioned to raise the most money, the results are generally different.  Also noteworthy was his finding that the actual content of the initiative is not a major factor in determining success or failure.

To point this out is not to say that redistricting initiatives are somehow by definition ill-founded.  It is only to appeal for perspective.  How initiatives actually function, and the extent to which they may reflect the popular will or distort its expression, is a consideration in weighing the strengths and weaknesses of a measure like Arizona’s that entirely displaces the role of elected representatives in the redistricting process.  Borrowing a notion which has been used in other contexts, it can be said that “democratic” interests lie on both sides of this equation.

Leave a Reply