- Ari Bermansenior writer at Mother Jones, a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center and author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.
The Supreme Court hands down two major decisions. The first is a victory for Republicans, allowing extreme partisan gerrymandering to continue. The other temporarily blocks the Trump administration from adding a citizenship question on the 2020 census. We get response from Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones, a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center and author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.” He says the ruling that federal courts can’t resolve claims of partisan gerrymandering is “almost guaranteed to facilitate massive election rigging in the future.”
AMY GOODMAN: In a devastating blow to voting rights, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday federal courts cannot strike down extreme gerrymandered congressional maps. In a narrow 5-to-4 opinion by the court’s conservative majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that gerrymandering is irreconcilable with democratic principles, but that this does not mean the solutions are within the federal judiciary. The decision leaves in place gerrymandered districts in North Carolina and Maryland, where the party in power drew districts to weaken the opposing party. The ruling now leaves confronting gerrymandering to the states.
In a powerful dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote, quote, “In giving such gerrymanders a pass from judicial review, the majority goes tragically wrong. … Is that how American democracy is supposed to work? … I have yet to meet the person who thinks so.” She continued, “Partisan gerrymandering can make [elections] meaningless. … At its most extreme—as in North Carolina and Maryland—the practice amounts to 'rigging elections,'” she said.
This comes as the Supreme Court temporarily blocked the Trump administration from adding a citizenship status question on the 2020 census, arguing the government had lied when it said the question was added to enforce the Voting Rights Act. But the court did not strike the question down, either. On Thursday, President Trump threatened to delay next year’s census.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Ari Berman, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at The Nation, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. His new piece, “Why It’s Almost Impossible for the Citizenship Question to Make It onto the Census.”
Let’s start there, Ari. Let’s start with the high court saying they would not, at this moment, allow the citizenship question, because the Trump administration did not explain why it wanted it.
ARI BERMAN: It was actually a surprising opinion, Amy, because a lot of people expected the conservative majority on the court to uphold the citizenship question, despite all the evidence showing this was discriminatory and unnecessary and would suppress immigrant communities. But, basically, what John Roberts said, writing for the majority, was that the Trump administration could add a question about citizenship to the census, but they had to have a good reason to do so. And their reason, that this was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, in Roberts’ words, quote “seems to be contrived.” Now, this was obvious from the very beginning. The Trump administration hasn’t filed a single lawsuit to enforce the Voting Rights Act, so of course they have no interest in enforcing the Voting Rights Act. But it was still bracing to hear John Roberts say this.
And so now what happens is, the administration has to come back with a better rationale. Even if they do, which I’m skeptical they’ll be able to do, time is running out. The Census Bureau said they need to finalize the forms by the end of this month, because the census is a $10 billion to $15 billion operation that needs to planned well in advance. Meanwhile, lower courts in both New York and Maryland are looking at smoking gun evidence that a GOP redistricting strategist pushed this question to help GOP and whites. So, if the courts look at more evidence, that’s not going to reflect well on the Trump administration, either.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the Trump administration is asking for a delay. What does this mean? I mean, as you said, it’s constitutionally mandated every 10 years the census takes place.
ARI BERMAN: Well, the Justice Department is going to try to ask for more time to defend its position and come up with a new rationale. And Trump is saying that he wants to actually delay the census, which is unprecedented and also unconstitutional. The census is constitutionally mandated to begin in April of 2020. It can’t be delayed because Donald Trump doesn’t get the question that he wants on the form.
AMY GOODMAN: Now let’s turn to the other decision. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the drafters of the Constitution realized that politics would influence how election districts are drawn when they gave that job to state legislatures. He said judges are not in the position to question lawmakers’ decisions. Roberts wrote, quote, “We conclude that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.” What does this mean, Ari?
ARI BERMAN: This decision by John Roberts in the gerrymandering case is almost guaranteed to facilitate massive election rigging in the future, because what John Roberts is saying is that no matter how extreme the maps, courts not only can’t strike them down, they can’t even review them, Amy. That is such a radical position. And we’ve seen such extreme gerrymandering passed in 2010 in places like Wisconsin, where Republicans have gotten 46% of the votes but 64% of seats. That’s so deeply undemocratic. And now we’re entering a new redistricting cycle in 2021. And when the Supreme Court basically says, “You guys can do whatever you want,” that means the maps passed in 2021, in the next redistricting cycle, could be even more extreme than the rigged maps we saw after 2010.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what about North Carolina and Maryland exactly?
ARI BERMAN: What it means is that, basically, the court said you need to vacate the lower court decisions striking down these gerrymanders. And courts overwhelmingly throughout the country have struck down gerrymandered maps in the lower courts—in Wisconsin, in North Carolina, in Maryland, in Pennsylvania. And those decisions, if they happened in federal court, are now vacated. What the Supreme Court says is, this can only be dealt with as a state issue. It can either be dealt with in state courts, or states can pass things like independent redistricting commissions. Some states will do that, but some states won’t. And for decades, people that have been disenfranchised have looked to the federal courts, and the Supreme Court, in particular, for protection. Now they can’t do that any longer.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we have had two nights of presidential debate. We’re going to go to excerpts soon, but we won’t be playing any excerpts of questions around voting rights.
ARI BERMAN: We won’t. And this is really distressing, Amy. We have had 25 debates in 2016, two debates so far in 2020, not a single question about the gutting of the Voting Rights Act or the attack on voting rights. We had huge Supreme Court decisions on gerrymandering and the census yesterday, that’s going to shape democracy for a decade. Not one question in the debate last night about it. The media keeps treating the right to vote as a fringe issue, as opposed to the right that makes all other rights possible.
If we continue to ignore this, make it seem like it doesn’t matter, we’re going to see the effects of our democracy. We’re going to see the voter suppression, the gerrymandering, the rigging of the census, that has occurred in the past. That’s going to get even worse now, going forward, if we don’t deal with this issue.
So, the debates are a huge platform that many, many people who don’t follow politics in and out are paying attention to. If they don’t hear about what’s happening with gerrymandering, what’s happening with voter suppression, they might not even know what’s going on. So I really hope in the future, at all of these Democratic forums, this comes up, because the Democrats have actually started addressing these issues. They’re talking about voter suppression. They’re talking about gerrymandering. They’re talking about the census. But it needs to come up in the debates when the most people are paying attention.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ari Berman, I want to thank you for being with us, senior writer at Mother Jones, reporting fellow at Type Media Center, author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America. We’ll link to your piece, “Why It’s Almost Impossible for the Citizenship Question to Make It onto the Census.”
When we come back, Senator Kamala Harris takes on former Vice President Joe Biden in the second night of the first Democratic primary debate. We’ll play highlights and speak with president of Color of Change, Rashad Robinson, and Andrea Mercado in Miami, executive director of the New Florida Majority. Stay with us.