As courts around the country decide whether to scrap electoral maps, clock is ticking on Wisconsin maps ahead of 2018 election
Despite winning more than half of the votes in state elections, systemic advantages handed Democrats only one-third of the seats in the state Assembly.Image By: Max Homstad
As the 2018 election cycle nears ever closer, voters are unsure of the fate of Wisconsin’s election map, which is set to be determined by the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark gerrymandering case later this year.
While it is unclear whether Wisconsin’s maps will be redrawn by the midterm elections, more and more state maps are being contested in courts across the nation, from Texas to Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C.
Congressional district maps are redrawn every 10 years, with the last redistricting effort taking place in 2010, when Republicans had recently taken control of the governorship under Scott Walker and seized majorities in both the state Senate and the Assembly.
The impact of the state’s new map first became apparent in the 2012 election cycle, when Republicans — despite only having 48 percent of the popular vote — managed to win 60 out of 99 Assembly seats.
In 2015, a group of Democratic plaintiffs challenged the map in court, under the claim that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection by way of representation.
A lower federal court subsequently ruled that the maps were, in fact, unconstitutional, according to an empirical metric called the efficiency gap, which measures how many wasted votes a map allows. The same court later ordered lawmakers amend the maps by Nov. 1, 2017.
But following the district court’s ruling, the state filed for an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which began hearing the case late last year.
The Wisconsin case is a landmark first in many ways. According to UW-Madison political science professor Barry Burden, it was the first time a federal court ever ruled that a state’s map was too partisan to be constitutional.
“Although courts have repeatedly been asked to weigh in on cases about extreme partisanship, they have avoided getting involved until the [Wisconsin] case,” Burden said.
Furthermore, the results could set the precedent for judicial involvement in the political process, furthering the roles of justices as instrumental to legislative action.
Since the appearance of the Wisconsin case, gerrymandering cases from both Maryland and North Carolina have since been filed with the SCOTUS.
The redistricting case in Maryland could have major effects on the decision of the Wisconsin case. Despite concerning only a single district, the Maryland case could provide a starting point from which to base and frame the larger reconstitution of a statewide map.
“It is possible that the justices will try to resolve both cases in a single decision that provides a standard for all legislative districts,” Burden said.
Recently, Pennsylvania had its own map challenged, in which the state’s supreme court ruled the district maps were unconstitutional and had them redrawn by a nonpartisan arbiter.
However, it is unlikely this decision will affect the Wisconsin case, as the map was struck down based on specific provisions in the Pennsylvania state constitution.
A three-judge panel in Texas also heard arguments on that state’s map, eventually finding it violated the Voting Rights Act and was intentionally discriminatory.
The Texas defendants also appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case on the basis of partisan redistricting, but has agreed to analyze the map on the basis of purposeful racial disenfranchisement.
In regards to Wisconsin’s contested map, the court is unlikely to provide this decision anytime soon. While some experts slated the case to resolve as soon as March, the Court remains in a gridlock split, 4-4 each way, with only Justice Anthony Kennedy acting as the swing vote.
Experts think Kennedy’s decision will be determined by how well the plaintiffs prove purposeful partisan redistricting, what standards the court will use to judge district lines and how big a role the court should play a role in dictating legislative maps.
“The arguments in the case have been pitched to win a majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, so the Wisconsin case might be the best possible opportunity for people looking to end extreme partisan gerrymandering,” Burden said.
And the longer the case stays deadlocked in the judiciary, the less likely the final verdict is to go into effect before the 2018 election cycle.
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