How Much Partisan Gerrmandering Is Allowed? Wisconsin Case Could Set Precedent

Dec 19, 2016

Wisconsin is one of several states embroiled in a court battle over redistricting. Each state's case is different, yet commonalities are emerging over how much gerrymandering is allowed.

Gerrymandering means drawing political districts to gain an advantage.

One ruling that might have turned heads a few weeks ago came out of North Carolina. A court ordered that state to redraw its political boundaries and then hold new elections next year. There are a couple of connections that exist with the Wisconsin case.

In Wisconsin, a panel of federal judges ruled in November 2016 that the political maps Republicans drew in 2011 are unconstitutional because they give the party an unfair advantage in winning control of the Legislature. Wisconsin's Attorney General Brad Schmiel plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“In the past, the court has always said that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional if it goes too far, but that partisan gerrymandering has been allowed up to this point," UW-Madison political science professor David Canon says.

A line of racial gerrymandering cases has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but he says, “Where the Wisconsin case comes in is our case could establish for the first time that partisan gerrymandering also is unconstitutional if it goes too far."

The Wisconsin case contains an estimate of how many votes for state Assembly might not have mattered because of the redrawn maps. Canon believes the Wisconsin case gives the Supreme Court the chance to set precedent for much gerrymandering, particularly partisan gerrymandering, is allowable.

If the people challenging the maps win, could the courts order Wisconsin, like North Carolina, to redraw its legislative districts and hold new elections? Canon says this particular North Carolina case has more to do with where race and politics meet. People of color are thought to often vote for Democrats.

“The judges said, ‘While special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymandering,'” Michael Tomsic says. He's a reporter for WFAE in Charlotte.

Lawmakers in North Carolina are appealing the court order.

Just as in Wisconsin, Tomsic says, Republicans swept into power in North Carolina in 2010 and therefore controlled the redistricting process. In that state, people are definitely talking about the Wisconsin case, and wondering whether it could be key in how the Supreme Court proceeds with other lawsuits, he says.

While some states are litigating redistricting protocol, a few follow an entirely different process - like Iowa.

Iowa has taken politicians out of the map-drawing equation, Mike McCabe says. He is president of Blue Jean Nation, a nonpartisan group aiming to change the way politics works.

“They have a nonpartisan legislative service agency draw the map using computer technology," he explains. "And the law in Iowa says that they can’t take into account where the incumbent office holder lives or they can’t look at past voting behavior."

McCabe says what Iowa ends up with are competitive districts, where anyone can win or lose.

In the meantime, here in Wisconsin, the court has told the twelve people suing the state over its political maps to suggest ways the state could do its drawing, more fairly.