You may learn from news reports this week about Moore v. Harper, a case argued at the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) on December 7 that could pose a serious threat to fair elections. You’re less likely to learn elsewhere that Harper is Becky Harper, a long-time Unitarian Universalist, member of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, and board member with Common Cause North Carolina, the organization leading the legal argument to limit partisan gerrymandering. The court will make crucial determinations regarding who has authority to make election laws, and what checks will exist on partisan manipulation of the electoral process.
Moore v. Harper has attracted enormous interest, with sixty-nine amicus briefs submitted to SCOTUS (several are summarized here). One extraordinary brief speaks for all fifty chief justices of U.S. state Supreme Courts, who jointly call on SCOTUS to reject the dangerous arguments advanced by Moore.
“The democratic system is broken when elected officials are choosing their voters, instead of voters choosing their elected representatives,” says Harper, whose work exemplifies living out the Fifth Principle of Unitarian Universalism, which affirms the use of democratic processes as a human right.
Moore v. Harper started with a complaint by Common Cause North Carolina challenging state legislators’ plan to impose severely gerrymandered congressional voting districts in federal elections following the 2020 census. The districts were designed to maximize wins by Republican candidates at the expense of accurately representing voters.
Common Cause convinced the North Carolina Supreme Court that the maps were a partisan gerrymander, violating the state constitution’s “Free Elections Clause.” The justices ordered the creation of a new, neutral district map to govern the 2022 federal elections last month, under which Democrats and Republicans each won seven of the state’s fourteen U.S. House of Representatives seats, mirroring the state’s nearly even split of voters. By comparison, under Republican-created districts for state offices this year, the GOP won a supermajority (more than two-thirds) of state senate seats and fell just one vote shy of a supermajority in the house.
“The democratic system is broken when elected officials are choosing their voters, instead of voters choosing their elected representatives,” says Harper.
On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in Moore v. Harper, the North Carolina lawmakers introduced a new argument, claiming the state court had no authority to strike down the map. They offered an extreme interpretation of two clauses in the U.S. Constitution, branded the “independent state legislature” (ISL) doctrine by proponents. They claim the Constitution gives state legislatures sole and complete power to manage federal elections unless Congress creates national standards, leaving state courts no authority to enforce protections for voters laid out in their states’ constitutions.
The ISL claim is overwhelmingly rejected by constitutional scholars, historians, judges, and others for defying constitutional text, historical record, and SCOTUS precedent. The Elections Clause was adopted because the U.S. Constitution’s authors deeply distrusted state legislatures and feared they would manipulate elections. Just three years ago, in Rucho v. Common Cause, SCOTUS declared it had no authority to decide the legality of state gerrymandering and cited state courts as the appropriate arbiter of those claims.
The opposition to ISL is not rooted merely in concern over gerrymandering. An expansive SCOTUS ruling supporting ISL would open the door for states to disenfranchise voters and manipulate elections in many ways. And, while Republicans seeking partisan advantage created the dispute, Democrats likely would have more to gain in a gerrymandering free-for-all. Voters and democracy, however, would lose.
Whether gerrymandering districts, obstructing ballot access, or other tactics, without non-partisan courts setting boundaries, politicians regularly shape rules to keep themselves in office or enhance their own power.
For Becky Harper, engaging in the case is fully integrated with her identity as a Unitarian Universalist. Although her parents followed another denomination, many of the people they encountered in their work for fair housing policies were UUs. Harper recalls thinking, “UUs were probably a good fit for me.” She became involved in the Raleigh congregation upon moving to the nearby town of Cary in 1993.
The ISL claim is overwhelmingly rejected by constitutional scholars, historians, judges, and others for defying constitutional text, historical record, and SCOTUS precedent.
Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice (UUSJ), partnering with Campaign Legal Center and others, signed onto an amicus brief in support of Harper. Along with harm to democratic process generally, gerrymandering would disproportionately harm BIPOC voters and office-holders.“We thought it was essential to have faith-based voices presenting our concerns to the court,” said UUSJ Director Pablo DeJesús.
Harper also connected her engagement to her faith. “I love being a UU because of our commitment to democracy and social justice issues,” Harper said. Both Harper and DeJesús will be on hand to support a rally on the SCOTUS steps the day of oral argument.
DeJesús offered an apt summary of Moore v. Harper’s importance: “Are we going to have a nation bending to those who seek to make our government more exclusionary or move toward a Beloved Community with an inclusive democracy?” The question goes to the core of our commitment as UUs.