U.S. Supreme Court may outlaw partisan gerrymandering

Campaign Legal Center’s (CLC) Paul Smith urged the U.S. Supreme Court to strike a blow against extreme partisan gerrymandering during recent oral arguments in the landmark case Gill v Whitford.

In the most significant partisan gerrymandering case in decades, 12 Wisconsin voters challenged the constitutionality of Wisconsin’s extreme partisan gerrymandering scheme, devised in 2011. The plan all but guarantees one party control of the State Assembly for the entire decade, irrespective of how the voters cast their ballots.

“Today we laid out for the Supreme Court how modern-day partisan gerrymandering undermines the promise of American democracy,” said Paul Smith, vice president of litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center.

“What happened in Wisconsin is exactly how most Americans think our political system operates: politicians met in secret, they manipulated district lines so they could choose their own voters, and they ensured that their party would stay in power for the next decade, regardless of what the voters did,” said Smith. “And their plan worked. It is now up to the Supreme Court to ensure our democracy functions like it should by reining in the most extreme partisan gerrymandering. And we are hopeful it will rise to the occasion.”

Wisconsin’s partisan division of legislative district boundaries created a map in 2011 designed in secret by legislative aides and hired consultants who employed the latest cartographic technology and data analysis to engineer a district plan that preordained the outcome of elections more extremely than any other in the last four decades.

In the first election under the plan, Republicans won a supermajority of 60 out of 99 seats despite losing the statewide vote for the Assembly.

In 2014 and 2016, Republicans extended their advantage to 63 and 64 seats, respectively, even though the statewide vote remained nearly tied.  Subsequently, for the first time in 31 years, a lower court—after a four-day trial—struck down the plan as an unconstitutional gerrymander.

Good government groups argue that Wisconsin’s gerrymander violates both the Equal Protection Clause by diluting the electoral influence of a targeted group of voters, and the First Amendment, by penalizing these voters because of their political beliefs.

“Since 2011, I have truly felt that my state does not function as a democracy,” said named plaintiff Bill Whitford, a retired law professor who lives in Madison. “Today I am hopeful that the Supreme Court will put a stop to a system where instead of voters choosing their lawmakers, the lawmakers choose their voters.”

“Extreme gerrymandering has taken away my voice as a citizen and as a voter,” said Helen Harris of Milwaukee, a retired elementary school principal who is also a plaintiff in the case. “I hope the court heard and understood today how badly this practice has damaged our democracy.”

In arguments, lawyers for the citizens highlighted that Wisconsin’s map was “crafted with an obsessive focus on partisan advantage.” They also refuted the notion that there is any neutral justification for the map’s overwhelming partisan tilt.

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