Skip to content

Nicholas Stephanopoulos, Elections and Alignment, 114 Colum. L. Rev. 283 (2014).

Abstract: Election law doctrine has long been dominated by rights-and-interests balancing: the weighing of the rights burdens imposed by electoral regulations against the state interests that the regulations serve. For the last generation, the election law literature has emphasized structural values that relate to the functional realities of the electoral system, competition chief among them. This Article introduces a new structural theory — the alignment approach — that has the potential to reframe and unify many election law debates. The crux of the approach is that voters’ preferences ought to be congruent with those of their elected representatives. Preferences as to both party and policy should correspond, and they should do so at the levels of both the individual district and the jurisdiction as a whole. The areas the alignment approach could reorient include franchise restriction, party regulation, campaign finance, redistricting, and minority representation. For instance, measures that hinder voting could be conceived not as rights violations or efforts to suppress competition, but rather as partisan distortions of the electorate. Similarly, campaign finance regulations could be assessed based on their capacity to shift candidates’ preferences toward those of their constituents (and away from those of their donors). And the key issue for district plans could be whether they properly align the jurisdiction’s median voter with the legislature’s median member. The alignment approach is attractive because it stems from the core meaning of democracy itself. If it is the people who are sovereign, then it is their preferences that should be reflected in the positions of their representatives. The approach also is appealing because of the support it finds in the Supreme Court’s case law. While the Court has never embraced the approach explicitly, it has often recognized the significance of preference congruence. However, it is important not to overstate the approach’s utility. Other election law values matter too and cannot be disregarded. Moreover, many of the factors that produce misalignment are non-legal and thus cannot be addressed by law reform alone.