Pete Buttigieg wants to make some changes to the Supreme Court, Electoral College, and congressional districts

"Democrats will gain power if America becomes more democratic. But that's a short-term issue."

Pete Buttigieg spoke to Northeastern University students Wednesday in the Blackman Auditorium in Boston. –Jim Davis / The Boston Globe

Pete Buttigieg says young people who think the political process is “rigged” are “not wrong” — even if it isn’t in the way that President Donald Trump claims.

“But when nine out of 10 districts in the Congress are totally uncompetitive because they’ve been drawn in such a way that the politicians actually choose their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians, in a very naked, transparent, and inarguable way, that election is rigged,” Buttigieg told a crowd of mostly Northeastern University students on their Boston campus Wednesday, referring to the effects of partisan gerrymandering.

“And what could be less inspiring, when you’re deciding whether to go vote in an election, than if you know the election is rigged,” he said.

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The South Bend, Indiana mayor — who is expected to officially launch a Democratic presidential campaign on April 14 — said a similar rational applies to the way the country elects its presidents.

“The Electoral College is a dumb idea,” Buttigieg told the audience, arguing that it was hard for him to convince someone in a deep-red state, such as Idaho, or a deep-blue state, like Massachusetts, that their vote mattered in a presidential election.

Buttigieg is hardly the only 2020 contender in the Democratic primary field who supports nonpartisan redistricting and getting rid of the Electoral College. While he supports ambitious action to address climate change, health care, and a transforming economy, Buttigieg has explicitly argued that “a package of Democratic reforms” should be the top priority for the next president.

And unlike his competitors, the 37-year-old mayor says those reforms need to include a restructuring of the Supreme Court. Buttigieg contends that it wouldn’t be as radical as it seems.

“The number of Supreme Court justices has already changed,” he said, referring to the Republican-controlled Senate’s unprecedented blockade of Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016

“They changed it to eight,” Buttigieg said. “And then they changed it back after they won.”

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Buttigieg says arguments that Democrats are introducing the idea of so-called “court packing” often ignores “the extent to which the Senate has already shattered some of these norms.”

Critics of the Supreme Court say the institution has recently become overly politicized — and, as a result, more conservative during the Trump administration and likely to strike down any big legislative agenda items passed by Democrats. Both of Trump’s two Supreme Court appointments were recommended to him and bred by conservative political groups.

Still, some progressives, including fellow 2020 candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, say Democrat-led efforts to expand the court would simply result in Republicans doing the same thing when they’re in power. Buttigieg says that’s a “very legitimate critique.” Instead, he favors reforms that would “depoliticize” the court.

“One that I find very appealing — devil’s in the details, but it’s appealing in principle — is you have 15 justices, but only 10 of them are appointed through a traditional political process [i.e. the president and the Senate], Democrats and Republicans,” he said. “The other five can only be seated if there’s unanimous agreement by the first 10.”

Buttigieg said it would result in more Supreme Court justices in the mold of David Souter or Anthony Kennedy, “who think for themselves.”

“And it just takes down the political temperature a little bit,” he said, noting that the Constitution allows Congress to decide how many justices are on the court.

Buttigieg says he’s also open to other ideas, such as having justices from the federal appeals court serve as Supreme Court justices on a rotating basis, similar to how an appellate court panel is selected.

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As much as he says these reforms would be nonpartisan, Buttigieg acknowledges that Republicans would likely frame them as a political gambit by Democrats. For example, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, recently labeled the sweeping government reform bill passed by House Democrats, which would end partisan redistricting in federal elections, as a Democratic “power grab.”

“Unfortunately, if your side stands to lose from a more representative system, then it may look to you like the other side is gaining power,” Buttigieg told reporters Wednesday before his appearance at Northeastern. “The truth is Democrats will gain power if America becomes more democratic.”

But he says that’s a “short-term issue.”

“There’s a long-term consensus that we would be better served if districts were drawn fairly, if the American people got to choose their president in the simplest way possible, and if we had a Supreme Court that was less political,” Buttigieg said.

“This is not about bringing the Supreme Court to the left, because it’s too conservative — even though I think it is too conservative,” he added. “This is about making sure that, for the next hundred years, we have a Supreme Court that can somehow outgrow this moment where every vacancy is treated like an apocalyptic ideological struggle.”

Buttigieg says he isn’t looking to “recenter the ideology of the Supreme Court,” but depoliticize its makeup.

“And if we get it right — if we have a good structural solution for how to do that — I believe it will command support on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

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