Federal Judges Block Republican Redistricting Efforts In Wisconsin

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Extreme gerrymandering of a redistricting map drawn out by the Republican-dominated State Legislature of Wisconsin has been struck down in Federal court.

The New York Times reports that the latest redistricting map of Wisconsin has been declared unconstitutional by a three judge panel in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin.

The 2-1 ruling declared that Republican-led redistricting violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, depriving Democratic voters of adequate representation. If the case goes to the Supreme Court, it could be the first time the manipulative art of gerrymandering faces limitations, setting a precedent for fairer nationwide partisan redistricting moving forward.

The latest map, which was drawn in 2011 by Wisconsin’s Republican controlled legislature, was challenged in court by 12 state Democrats in 2012.  The gerrymandering was found to disproportionately favor the Republican party. Boundaries carefully scattered Democratic voters into districts where they could never achieve a majority.  As a result, the Republican party retained a majority in most districts, preserved the most seats in the State Assembly, and currently remain in unchallenged dictatorial control of the state.

Historically, gerrymandering has met minimal legal challenge with regards to being too partisan.  Edward Foley, director of the Election Law Project at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, explains: “[n]obody has come up with a standard to measure constitutionality — how to distinguish between malevolent, evil partisanship that’s manipulative, versus the natural advantage one party might have as a result of where voters happened to live.”  While the issue has come up in court before, it has been all but impossible to prove.

However, a new mathematical formula introduced in the Wisconsin case may change the future of gerrymandering forever.  NBC News describes it as calculating “how many votes in each party [are] wasted, either because they [are] so diluted in a district they could never achieve a majority or because they [are] so concentrated in a district that they [are] in excess of what [is] needed to get a majority.” In other words, it helps to determine how much of an advantage one political party may have over another when it comes to voter distribution within districts.  The result of this formula is known as the “efficiency gap.”

[T]he efficiency gap… divides the difference between the two parties’ “wasted votes” — votes beyond those needed by a winning side, and votes cast by a losing side — by the total number of votes cast. When both parties waste the same number of votes, the result is zero — an ideal solution. But as a winning party wastes fewer and fewer votes than its opponent, its score rises.

The last 40 years of gerrymandering maps and electoral outcomes have shown that “an efficiency gap of 7 percent or more [is] likely to keep its majority during the 10 years before new districts [are] drawn.” Examining Wisconsin’s latest results of the 2011 redistricting map gave the Republican party an overwhelming 11.69 to 13% efficiency gap, almost double the guaranteed partisan advantage. The evidence was clear with the state’s Assembly elections in 2012, where the GOP claimed 61 of the 99 seats, despite only garnering 48.6% of the vote. On a national level, the advantages become more evident:

Republicans have more than doubled their control of state legislatures since 2010, and with gains from this month’s election they now control both legislative chambers in a record 32 states — 33 if Nebraska, which has a nominally nonpartisan, unicameral legislature, is included.

If Wisconsin’s redistricting case is heard by the Supreme Court, the outcome very likely will end up in the hands of Judge Anthony M. Kennedy, a conservative justice who has shown progressive tendencies over the last few years. His ruling may have a significant impact throughout the country and could limit partisanship for dominant political parties in all states. This could lay the groundwork for challenging other states that show unusually high efficiency gaps, like Virginia, North Carolina, and Michigan, according to Nicholas Stephanopoulos, a University of Chicago law professor representing the plaintiffs.

Wisconsin, however, does have the option of accepting the Federal court’s decision and not filing an appeal with the Supreme Court.  This would limit the Federal mandate striking down extreme partisan gerrymandering to just the state of Wisconsin, protecting other Republican-dominated states from being impacted by a broader ruling from the Supreme Court.

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