Academic journal article Constitutional Commentary

Single-Member Districts Are Not Constitutionally Required

Academic journal article Constitutional Commentary

Single-Member Districts Are Not Constitutionally Required

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

The Constitution is silent on the method for electing representatives, as it only requires the apportionment of seats in the House following the decennial census. Congress and the states determine many of the electoral rules affecting the House, such as the method of apportioning seats, the manner of electing representatives, and the size of the House. As such, Congress, the courts, and state legislatures have become central actors in determining apportionment law that dictates the institutional design and representative nature of the House. After ratification of the Constitution, states experimented with different methods for electing representatives based on representational preferences and needs. It was Congress that ultimately required that states uniformly use single-member districts, creating institutional rules that profoundly affected the composition of the House of Representatives. Article 1, Section 4 stipulates that "Congress may at any time by law make or alter [election] regulations." Does this language include the ability to require states to adopt a uniform method for electing representatives? Can the single-member district requirement be constitutionally justified through an understanding of congressional power to make electoral regulations? These questions are the result of the broad language in the Elections Clause. Given the lack of judicial interpretation on this matter, understanding the constitutional development of single-member districts requires a focus on the constructed meaning of the Constitution that emerged within the political debates over preferred electoral rules.

Gill v. Whitford is a recent case of the Supreme Court entering the "political thicket" of redistricting. The case centers on Wisconsin's redistricting plan, following the 2010 census, passed by a Republican-controlled legislature in 2011. A district court declared the plan violated the Constitution because it favored one party, while disadvantaging the other--an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. Voting results in the Wisconsin elections help substantiate this claim because, in 2012 and 2014, Democrats received more votes (just over a majority) than Republicans, yet the Democrats only won 39 of the 99 seats in the state-assembly. Wisconsin Republicans maintained that they did not intentionally create partisan districts, but the disparity emerged because of a natural geographic advantage they have in rural areas, where their voters are evenly distributed, compared to the Democrats, who are clustered in urban areas. (1) In this case, drawing geographical district lines mattered for the partisan composition and representativeness of the state legislature.

While Gill v. Whitford focused on state-level redistricting, in 2015, the Court ruled on a case dealing with congressional redistricting and the use of independent redistricting commissions to reduce partisan gerrymandering at the federal level. In Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, the Supreme Court considered if a popular initiative could empower an independent commission to draw district lines for the state. State legislatures are constitutionally empowered to determine "the manner of holding elections" for the House, including drawing district lines. Writing for the 5-4 majority, Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued that the "Legislature" in the Elections Clause could also refer to any body capable of making laws, including "the people." (2) According to this understanding, the concept of legislature was expanded, allowing for additional avenues to drawing district lines other than state legislatures, the common practice based on the interpretation of the Elections Clause. Like many previous cases, the Court's ruling constructs an understanding of Article I, Section 4 and the scope of congressional power under the Times, Places and Manner Clause, specifically related to creating constituencies and determining the nature of congressional representation. …

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