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William & Mary Law Review
Challenging Congress's Single-Member District Mandate for U.S. House Elections on Political Association Grounds
Repository CitationAustin Plier, Challenging Congress's Single-Member District Mandate for U.S. House Elections on Political Association Grounds, 61 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1719 (2020), https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmlr/vol61/iss6/5
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In 1967, in the wake of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), Congress enacted a law requiring every state to elect its representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives in single-member districts. Congress’s mandate was based on a well-founded fear that, in response to the VRA’s success in combating discriminatory voting laws, states would adopt multimember congressional districts with winner-take-all voting in an attempt to keep black candidates from winning representation. In the years after the law was passed, single-member districts—combined with the success of the VRA— increased the number of black candidates elected to the U.S. House, and paved the way for the use of majority-minority voting districts to ensure communities of color could elect a candidate of their choice. However, more than fifty years later, Congress’s singlemember districting scheme for U.S. House elections has had unintended and far-reaching consequences for America’s national political health. Furthermore, modern analysis reveals that singlemember districts, in the context of twenty-first century technology and geographical trends, poorly deliver on Congress’s original goal of ensuring fair representation of communities of color. As a result, Congress has reached peak levels of dysfunction and partisan gridlock, and the composition of Congress lags behind the growing diversity of the American electorate.
To spur desperately needed reform of America’s U.S. House elections, this Note challenges the constitutionality of Congress’s single-member district mandate, arguing that the law violates voters’ First Amendment political association rights. Single-member districts, which result in winner-take-all elections to fill all 435 seats in the U.S. House, effectively preserve a two-party system. With only one winner in each district, and only one vote to cast for each voter, elections naturally devolve into a two-candidate horse race. The result is that, in the 115th Congress, every member of the U.S. House belonged to one of the two major parties, leaving minor-party voters and those dissatisfied with major-party policy positions with the unenviable choice of voting their conscience—and in all likelihood, wasting their vote—or holding their noses and voting for one of the two major parties.
Relying on the analytical framework provided by the Anderson- Burdick standard, this Note applies the Court’s jurisprudence on political association rights to Congress’s mandate of single-member districts. The Anderson-Burdick standard requires courts to evaluate the burden an election law imposes on voters’ political association rights, and weighs that burden against the government’s legitimate interests advanced by the law in question. Although the Anderson-Burdick standard was developed through the Supreme Court’s evaluation of state election laws, this Note takes the position that the standard represents the most logical approach to evaluating a First Amendment political association challenge to an Act of Congress.
Part I documents the history precipitating Congress’s singlemember district mandate and the troubling impact the mandate has had on America’s political health. Part II describes the Court’s development of the Anderson-Burdick standard as a means to evaluate state election laws burdening voters’ political association rights and examines the Court’s recent decision to vacate a district court’s analysis of partisan gerrymandering through the lens of political association rights. Part III articulates the burden singlemember districts impose on voters and weighs that burden against Congress’s original legitimate interest in ensuring representation for black voters in the U.S. House. Part IV anticipates and addresses potential institutional concerns about the Supreme Court weighing in on Congress’s chosen method of political representation.