Redistricting ruling puts onus on states

Partisan gerrymandering has long exasperated the Supreme Court, as its June 18 ruling in the case known as Gill v. Whitford attests.

The court found that the plaintiffs did not have sufficient standing to challenge Wisconsin’s statewide district maps. The plaintiffs claimed the maps were drawn to minimize the political power of the opposition party, thus creating an illegal “gerrymander.”

Politicians from both parties have long used their opportunities to redraw voter boundaries following each decennial Census for partisan benefit.

In 2011, Wisconsin’s redistricting process was carried out by one party in a rushed, secretive and lopsided way, resulting in rigged maps that have diminished competitive elections, decreased lawmakers’ responsiveness to their constituents and increased hyper-partisan legislation.

My group, the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, filed a brief in the Gill v. Whitford case urging the justices to affirm the lower court ruling that the Wisconsin’s legislative districts were unconstitutional based on partisan gerrymandering. We showed how the 2011 redistricting has led to more extreme legislation than would be expected from a more typical shift in power from one party to another. The 2011 redistricting has also led to litigation which has cost taxpayers more than $2 million.

Since the 1970s, the league has advocated for an independent commission to redraw voting maps so legislators can’t use this opportunity to “choose their voters.” In the 1980s, the league supported a Republican proposal to achieve nonpartisan redistricting, and in recent sessions we have supported legislation introduced by the Democrats for the same purpose.

In its ruling in Gill v. Whitford, the Supreme Court did not decide the merits of the case, but rather sent the case back to a lower court for further review. (The court also declined to issue a ruling on the merits in another redistricting case, in Maryland.)

In the meantime, the onus is on the states to curb abuses through legislative action.

One model for states to consider comes from Iowa, where the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency has developed a redistricting plan every 10 years since 1981. The Iowa legislature has always approved the first or second iteration of the redrawn map. There has been no litigation, so the state has saved millions of dollars in lawyer fees. Iowa has many more competitive districts, giving voters more choice. This model is responsible, efficient and inexpensive.

Ultimately, partisan gerrymandering does nothing to help democracy. Instead, it only protects the political interests of the party in power. Both Democrats and Republicans have used this tactic over the years to consolidate power and keep voters from having a truly fair say in choosing their governmental representatives.

The Gill v. Whitford decision is frustrating in that it was a wasted opportunity for the Supreme Court to set a standard to make elections fairer. Fortunately, it leaves the door open for future litigation and a more favorable judgment.

States, including Wisconsin, can still right this wrong. So far, more than half of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have passed resolutions in support of a nonpartisan redistricting process. Yet current legislative leaders have never even allowed these bills to have a hearing, let alone a vote.

Lawmakers need to be accountable to voters and support legislation that will take the power of map-drawing out of partisan control and give it to an independent body, with plenty of public input, in the interest of fairness and democracy.

Erin Grunze is executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine.