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The U.S. Supreme Court has intervened five times so far in electoral protocol cases this session during Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo: Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

'Vital Democracy Reform' Takes Hit in Oregon After US Supreme Court Undermines Another Ballot Initiative

A state-level effort to put redistricting in the hands of the people amid the pandemic was set back after the nation's highest court intervened.

Lisa Newcomb

In the latest salvo against change efforts at the local grassroots level, the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday put a hold on a lower court's ruling to ease restrictions for a citizen ballot initiative campaign in Oregon that organizers called "vital democracy reform."

The justices granted a request by Oregon officials to issue the stay on a July 10 injunction by a U.S. district judge ordering the state to reduce the number of signatures needed to place a redistricting measure on the November ballot amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Tuesday's ruling puts on hold the district court ruling pending an opinion by an appeals court, which is expected later this week. This is the fifth time since the pandemic began that SCOTUS has intervened in election processes in light of Covid-19.

The Oregon initiative would allow voters to decide whether the state should create an independent commission—as opposed to partisan lawmakers—to redraw electoral district lines in the state. 

In July, the nation's highest court intervened to block signature gathering for a citizen initiative in Idaho that would expand the state's education funding. SCOTUS has issued similar orders blocking the easing of election restrictions—including for protocols for absentee ballot voting—in Alabama, Texas, and Wisconsin. The court is scheduled this week to consider a request to reinstate witness requirements for absentee ballots in Rhode Island, following the easing of regulations due to Covid-19.

As of Wednesday, organizers in Oregon intended to push forward with their efforts.

"People Not Politicians prevailed in federal district court and we will be defending Oregonian voters’ First Amendment rights during our scheduled oral argument in the 9th Circuit on August 13," Norman Turrill, a chief petitioner and campaigner with the advocacy group, said in a statement. "Our coalition will continue doing everything in our power to put this vital democracy reform on the ballot in November and ensure there is a path for redistricting reform in Oregon in 2021."

But watchdogs warn that continued use of what has been dubbed the 'shadow docket,' undermines the democratic process.

"They're becoming especially common in election-related and Covid-related cases—of which we can expect only more between now and this fall," Steve Vladeck wrote in Slate.  "And it's all happening as Congress, which has the unquestioned power to exercise far more control over the justices' caseload, has done nothing to change any of the relevant rules in well over three decades."

As Covid-19 cases top 5 million in the U.S. and states grapple with primary elections and preparations for November's presidential contest, Vladeck warns U.S. citizens have not seen the end of these types of directives.

"With more and more of these decisions affecting more and more of us on a regular basis, it would behoove the justices to do whatever they can to bring more of these rulings into the sunlight—and for Congress to consider more aggressive reforms if they don't," he wrote.

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