It is difficult to know yet whether disaster was averted or just delayed by a United States Supreme Court decision released this week in an important voting case. By a 6-to-3 vote, the justices upheld the tradition of judicial review of state legislatures’ election rules — including by the federal courts. Had it gone the other way, states would have been free to do whatever they liked when managing voting in presidential and congressional races, eroding one of the key checks and balances at the center of American democracy.
The case itself had echoes here in New York. It involved a North Carolina voting district map that would have produced at least 10 Republican members of Congress from that state and four or fewer Democrats, despite an electorate that is nearly equally divided politically. New York’s own Democratic-drafted voting map was tossed by a court last year and another round rests in the hands of the state appeals court. New York’s map was redrawn by a court-appointed expert. The new congressional districts, which were used in the 2022 midterms, led to significant Republican gains across the state and contributed to the loss of the House of Representatives by Democrats.
In front of the U.S. Supreme Court, the North Carolina Republicans had argued that the Constitution granted state legislatures almost exclusive authority to write rules for election to federal office, subject only to intervention by Congress. It is conceivable that the more highly politicized members of the court had the New York example in the back of their minds when they opted to deny free rein to Republicans in North Carolina. That may or may not have been a factor. In writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts observed that state legislatures and state courts could not ignore either their own states’ constitutions or the federal Constitution. As Adam Liptak in The New York Times reported, the chief justice quoted from the records of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, that the “legislatures, the framers recognized, ‘are the mere creatures of the state constitutions, and cannot be greater than their creators.’ ”
While more litigation of elections, not less, is expected following the court’s recent decision, it may prove to be a landmark moment in rejecting a theory from which chaos and authoritarian takeovers of elections were possible. The fight to maintain and improve our representative system of government is ongoing. In this the Supreme Court reminded the states that the rule of law still mattered.