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Justices take on fight over partisan electoral maps

20 June 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a Wisconsin redistricting case and consider whether partisan gerrymandering is constitutional.

The ruling by the Supreme Court could clarify the point at which a state crosses from redrawing maps to favor the party in power, to actual violation of the Constitution.

Longtime Democratic Party activist Bill Whitford brought the case Gill v. Whitford, which challenges Wisconsin's 2011 State Assembly map as unconstitutional. Despite Democrats winning a majority of the statewide Assembly vote in 2012 and 2014, Republicans won sixty of the ninety-nine Assembly seats. The map, Judge Kenneth F. Ripple wrote for the majority, "was created to make it more hard for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats". Even if all the issues are not sorted out in time to affect the current maps being used by various states in 2018 and 2020, the current litigation could have a big impact on what happens during the next round of redistricting, which will begin after the 2020 elections.

"I am thrilled the Supreme Court has granted our request to review the redistricting decision and that Wisconsin will have an opportunity to defend its redistricting process", Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said in a prepared statement Monday. It split the court five different ways, with the bottom line being that the justices could not agree on a test to determine when normal political instincts such as protecting your own turned into an unconstitutional dilution of someone else's vote.

This case could have "enormous ramifications", Steve Vladeck, a professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law, told CNN This would be the first time the court has "articulated a constitutional rule in this context", he said.

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Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, which is representing the voters who challenged the maps: "You would like a situation where the legislative outcomes accurately reflect the actions of the voters".

Last year, a citizen-led group in IL collected over half a million signatures to get a question on the general election ballot to change the state constitution, allowing for an independent commission to oversee the map-making process. "Now it has the potential to be applied to every state", Kessler said.

The situation is similar in Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, where lines drawn by Republicans have given the GOP the lion's share of the seats in Congress and state legislatures.

The Republican party now controls a majority of state legislatures and, thus, re-districting in most states.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who sometimes sides with the court's liberals in major cases, could cast the decisive vote.

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The court's consideration of the issue comes as observers from both of the US's two main political parties continue to lament about how redistricting has become more pervasive and partisan over the last decade.

Federal courts have previously ruled that maps that employ "racial gerrymandering" are unconstitutional. They also have majorities in an all-time high of 69 of 99 state legislative chambers, according to the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Twelve Republican-dominated states are supporting Wisconsin in its defense of the 2011 redistricting plan.

In the 2016 congressional election, more Virginians voted for Democrats than Republicans by a scant margin - 1,859,426 to 1,843,010 - but those votes resulted in the seven-four Republican majority.

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Justices take on fight over partisan electoral maps