Checks, Balances Keep Policymakers In Line With Others
The Supreme Court handed down a flurry of decisions in June 2023, a few coming with eyebrow-raising reactions. You could almost hear teachers and nurses sighing at the lost chance to reduce their student debt.
So, too, the sighs from universities and corporations. Admissions departments even HR personnel, face new hurdles if they want to recruit well-rounded student and staff bodies. The change at Purdue University came swiftly. The university’s guidance in admissions now specifies that demographic software systems must suppress race and ethnicity. Furthermore, they provided the following direction regarding race and ethnicity in essays: Despite system changes, there are opportunities for students to include diversity statements in other essays and that cannot be suppressed through technology. If information is provided in an essay, there should be no consideration given to that portion of the essay. Obviously, it is imperative that everyone follow the new Federal Law and not consider race or give racial preference to any students on admission decisions. The ruling, which is not a law per se, creates a hodgepodge of uncertainty and responses across the nation’s colleges and corporations.
But not every decision handed down created a long-tailed reaction and conversation. The case called Moore v. Harper, which pressed for a fringe reading of the Constitution to give unchecked authority to state legislatures when redistricting and writing election procedures, was hailed a success for the American election system. If you’ve been busy and missed why it matters, here’s why the League thinks it’s worth understanding.
Let’s start with the implications of the ruling. Why should we care so much about how states redistrict and write election rules? These are procedural matters that can’t compete with urgent concerns of daily life – interest rates, housing shortages, food and medical costs and lack of affordable childcare. Like inflation, which is affecting costs, these items are “anchored” to expectations. Companies and the Federal Reserve monitor price points to keep those anchored to consumers’ emotions – somewhere at the tipping point of our optimism and fear. In this system, emotions, those volatile shapeshifters, are a data point. Our bank accounts and cash flows dominate our headspace. Economic policy has immediate consequences compared to the procedural rules about voting. In that emotional vortex, it’s easy to conflate economic systems with democratic policies, though they are separate frameworks. Consider that democracies elsewhere around the world play nice with more than just capitalist economic systems.
What keeps a democracy in balance is when the legislators are aligned with the people they represent. Our alarm bells should go off when the will of the legislators and the people grows apart. When that happens, tensions rise. Something has to give.
When the gap of disaffection grows between the Legislative Branch, which it has for decades (according to Gallup polls in September 2022, 62 percent of Americans had not very much confidence or no confidence at all in Congress) then it puts pressure on the Executive Branch to use unilateral executive actions for the will of the people. Of course, that branch will favor one of the two major parties because the U.S. has come to rely on the two-party system. The pitfall of having only two dominant parties is that they tend to pit issues as two-sided, as either / or, but most of us hold more nuanced understandings of key issues. Feeling pigeon-holed by political rhetoric, some voters give in and “vote for the lesser of two evils.” At least something is happening! Some resist, voting third party, though it inevitably loses. Some desist, refusing to vote. Others give in to total distrust and vote for anyone who seems likely to blow up a system they perceive as dysfunctional. Most of us are saying, You’re not hearing us. You’re not listening.
So when polling demonstrates that a majority of Americans feel Congress is a do-nothing institution, people turns to the Executive Branch. That branch overreaches, which leads to challenges in the courts. Now the Judicial Branch makes decisions that seem to please one party over another. And, the hairs on the backs of necks raise. Our government seems to be moving away from the compromise-based center that democracy creates.
For a while, the population generally trusted the Supreme Court as the final ballast. A ballast is a heavy material placed in the hold of a ship or the gondola of a balloon to enhance stability. Enhancement is its role, not being the last holdout. What happens when the Executive Branch, and now the Judicial Branch face sustained, imbalanced pressure from lack of Congressional action? They begin to show signs of strain and distrust.
If people feel powerless, they get angry, they foment conspiracy ideas, their distrust grows. These are the seeds of protest.
What does it take to prevent the seeds of protest to turn into weeds of violence? Either the government must more accurately represent and serve its people, or its leaders must move the people, not through merely laws – a kind of because we said so – but through persuasion. There must be tangible evidence that reducing abortion improves the nation, that eradicating affirmative action will not disaffect whole swaths of our population. If the people disagree, legislators must listen to the will of the people, which is why we cannot allow state legislatures to have unchallenged authority when writing election rules. We cannot have a government by the people and for the people if one side hoards control.
Moore v. Harper matters here in Indiana. When we went through redistricting in 2021, a non-partisan group hosted listening sessions so our legislators would understand what Hoosiers wanted. Voters in Greencastle asked that their district NOT include state prisoners as residents of the district to bloat the size of that district. MoCo residents sought a unified district, instead of being split up. Hoosiers asked for competitive districting that better represented the actual voting patterns of Hoosiers. We may be a red state but it has sizable independent and blue voting blocks. The dominance of Republicans in state and federal offices is not equivalent to the number of Democrat and independent and third-party voters. When that gap persists and grows, the government is no longer by the people and citizens will increasingly doubt it’s for the people. What recourse are citizens left with? Voting.
The decision in Moore v. Harper empowered the citizenry. It shot down a theory called “independent state legislature theory” which balanced the right of citizens to challenge state legislatures’ redistricting and election rulemaking and prevents the legislative branch from stacking power for the ruling party. It means people can appeal to the judicial branch to say, “Hey, wait a minute. We are being disenfranchised here.” It says that no legislature can exercise self-protecting will without the checks and balances of other branches of the government. Hopefully, it protects our democracy longer.
– The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan, multi-issue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.