Today, the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) took steps to protect the right of voters in Wisconsin to freely choose their representatives by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm the decision of a lower court last year declaring a 2011 plan by politicians redrawing the state’s assembly district lines unconstitutional. The case, Gill v. Whitford, gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to decide when sorting voters based on partisanship is so extreme that it violates the U.S. Constitution.
Wisconsin is a closely divided swing state. Its voters backed the Democratic candidate for president in 2012 and the Republican candidate in 2016. It has one Democratic and one Republican Senator. And in the state assembly elections at issue in the Whitford case, both parties’ statewide votes have hovered very close to fifty percent. Democrats won a narrow statewide majority in 2012, while Republicans won equally slim majorities in 2014 and 2016.
Wisconsin’s State Assembly, however, bears no resemblance to its evenly split electorate. In 2012, Republicans won a supermajority of sixty seats (out of ninety-nine) while losing the statewide vote. In 2014 and 2016, Republicans extended their advantage to sixty-three and sixty-four seats, respectively, even though the statewide vote remained nearly tied. Republicans thus wield legislative power unearned by their actual appeal to Wisconsin’s voters.
This is not by coincidence.
Across the country, both Republican and Democratic politicians have manipulated the system, taking the power of selecting representatives away from the voters. In Wisconsin in 2011, legislative aides and hired consultants worked in a secret room in a private law firm, hidden from the public and the press, to manipulate, or “gerrymander,” the State Assembly district lines in an effort to ensure Republican control for the next decade, irrespective of the will of voters.
They were successful.
After rushing passage of their plan, and upending the state’s practice of drawing ward lines before district lines, Republicans gained 60 percent of the seats in the State Assembly, despite receiving only 49 percent of the statewide vote in 2012.
Every ten years, the U.S. Constitution requires states to redraw their congressional and state legislative district lines to reflect population changes. We call this redistricting. Every district that elects a representative to Congress or a state legislature must be roughly equal in its total population. And citizens reasonably expect their elected officials to fairly and transparently draw district lines. However, in most states, state legislators are able to draw the boundaries for the districts that they will then run for office in for the next 10 years. When one party is in control of both branches of the legislature and the governor’s office, politicians have an unchecked ability to redraw district lines in their favor. In a democracy, we think and expect that voters are choosing their representatives through elections. But, when those representatives draw the lines for their own districts, we too often end up with legislators choosing their voters instead.
Extremely distorted and gerrymandered districts, like Wisconsin’s State Assembly plan, have a real impact on people’s lives. When politicians manipulate state maps to hold on to power, they’ve essentially chosen their voters, and they no longer need to listen to the concerns of all their constituents. Just ask plaintiff Emily Bunting, who has written and called her representative, to no avail, about numerous problems in her district, including deteriorating roads, inadequate school funding, and potential groundwater contamination, among others. In a recent gathering with her Whitford plaintiff “family,” where the plaintiffs bonded over their shared experiences and diluted influence as voters, Emily expressed a feeling shared among many in the room: “Our state representative used to answer our phone calls, and now he won’t. Before the redistricting, people could organize and fight...in our old district, we at least had some kind of impact. Now, not so much.”
Or take plaintiff Helen Harris, who has lived in Milwaukee all her life and voted in every election from school board to governor. As a retired educator, Helen cares deeply about education and schools in the Milwaukee and greater Wisconsin area. But because of the 2011 redistricting plan, Helen was placed in a new district, with a representative who does not bother to respond to her concerns. Because of this, Helen says, “I don’t feel connected to my district or representative anymore…I vote, but feel powerless.” Helen, Emily, and thousands of voters across the state continue to cast their ballot because of a deep fundamental belief in fairness and the democratic process.
Stories like those from Emily and Helen demonstrate the real and lasting impact on citizens’ lives when politicians manipulate district lines for partisan gain, and with no regard for the people who live in those districts. Last November, a three-judge panel—after considering all the evidence from both sides—found that Wisconsin’s gerrymandering violated the U.S. Constitution. The panel also ordered that a new district plan be drawn by Nov. 1, 2017. The state appealed the panel’s decision to keep the unfair maps in place.
Partisan gerrymandering is a scourge on our national politics. It undermines the power of voter, twists our democracy, and fosters an environment of self-serving politics. Today’s brief asks the Court to recognize the right of voters across Wisconsin to freely choose their representatives and to create ground rules to keep politicians from stacking the decks against their citizens.
Learn more about Campaign Legal Center’s efforts on behalf of the 12 plaintiffs in Whitford here.