Today, the U.S. Supreme Court took another step toward safeguarding the fundamental right of all Americans to have their vote count by announcing it would hear oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, a case challenging Wisconsin’s State Assembly districts as an extreme partisan gerrymander.
Gerrymandering is the process by which politicians choose their own voters and manipulate district maps to benefit themselves, which undermines the ability of voters to choose representatives that reflect their will.
Imagine being an active citizen and lifelong voter. You pay your taxes, abide by the law, and regularly participate in the democratic process through voting. Like most Americans, you care about a clean environment, good schools, and safe roads and bridges. Now imagine there’s a flood in your town, causing the need for an urgent school building repair. You try to contact your local representative, but you get no response. You consider voting for a different candidate, one who understands your needs, but you know it is futile because your district lines have been drawn to ensure the local representative wins re-election whether he or she listens to constituents’ needs or not.
For too many citizens of Wisconsin and other states around the country, that is now the way of life. Politicians in too many districts can cater their services to a diminishing percentage of constituents, knowing how hard it is to be unseated, due to the fact that politicians hold the power of drawing district maps and have drawn them to ensure they prevail.
And now, the Supreme Court has an opportunity to take a stand for voters, and make a determination that manipulation of voting maps for partisan advantage can be so extreme that it violates the U.S. Constitution.
In the landmark case Gill v. Whitford, twelve Wisconsin voters represented by a legal team including CLC successfully challenged the state’s 2011 redistricting plan as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. On Nov. 21, 2016, Judge Ripple, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote the opinion for the majority of the three-judge panel which found that Wisconsin’s 2011 State Assembly district map violated the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The panel reached this conclusion after conducting a full trial on the matter and considering extensive evidence from both sides. The evidence demonstrated in clear, unambiguous terms the lengths to which politicians will go to undermine voters in the name of political power.
Case in point: In 2010, as part of a “coordinated national strategy to ‘win Republican control of state legislatures with the largest impact on… redistricting,’ the Republican State Leadership Committee spent” over $1 million to “successfully flip both chambers of the Wisconsin legislature. In 2011, now in full command of the state government,” legislative aides and hired consultants convened in a secret room in a private law firm, hidden from the public and the press, to aggressively manipulate, or “gerrymander,” the State Assembly district lines in an effort to ensure Republican control for the next decade, no matter the results of forthcoming elections and irrespective of the will of voters.
For Wendy Sue Johnson, a mother of two, and fifth-generation native of Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the 2011 plan meant that she and her family are divided from their neighbors and “packed” into a redrawn district with a significant percentage of Democratic voters. With surgical precision, the new district boundary lines cut directly across the street and alongside the exterior wall of Wendy Sue’s home, concentrating the majority of Democratic voters in one district and thereby making the surrounding districts significantly easier for Republicans to win.
And the map drawers were successful.
After scaling this plan across the state, in 2012 Republicans won a supermajority of 60 percent of the State Assembly seats, despite losing the statewide vote. In 2014 and 2016, Republicans extended their advantage to 63 and 64 seats, respectively, even though the statewide vote remained nearly tied. Republicans thus wield legislative power unearned by their actual appeal to Wisconsin’s voters.
Unfortunately, the story of extreme partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin isn’t an anomaly. It’s also certainly not a problem limited to one party. Across the country, politicians of both parties manipulate the system and sideline voters based on political affiliation. If you are a Democrat in Wisconsin or North Carolina or a Republicans in Illinois, Maryland or Rhode Island, you are being denied an effective voice in electing your representatives. Indeed, over the long haul, all Americans are harmed by the practice, not Democrats or Republicans.
Partisan gerrymandering is worse now than at any time in recent memory.
Today’s sophisticated technology of mapping and data software has allowed politicians to make predictions, with pinpoint accuracy, for where supporters, opponents, and candidates live, and where they may move, in order to design precise legislative maps that will benefit their political party. According to University of Chicago Law Professor Nick Stephanopoulos, who was instrumental in developing the efficiency gap measure, four of the five most “effectively” gerrymandered state legislative maps on partisan grounds in the last 45 years were drawn since 2010. The same applies to eight of the 10 statewide maps for the U.S. House of Representatives.
CLC is hopeful that the Supreme Court will uphold the lower court’s ruling declaring Wisconsin’s 2011 extreme partisan gerrymander unconstitutional, and establish “a workable standard for measuring a gerrymander’s burden on representational rights.” Vieth, 541 U.S. at 311 (Kennedy, J., concurring in the judgment) (emphasis added).
If the Supreme Court affirms the lower court’s decision and adopts a clear standard to curb partisan gerrymandering, the impact will be enormous for our democracy. For the first time, there will be a limit on the degree of partisan manipulation that is tolerable in a district plan. The likely result is that it would become much more difficult for self-interested politicians to distort representation at all levels of government.
Redistricting reform represents a core for our democracy. As we continue the legal fight for a stronger democracy and litigate the case before the Supreme Court this fall, please join us by subscribing for email updates. Help us improve our democracy and protect the fundamental right of all Americans to have their voices heard at the ballot box.
Learn more about CLC’s efforts on behalf of the 12 plaintiffs in Whitford here.