Eric L. Davis, Politically Speaking: U.S. Supreme Court considers key gerrymandering case

The Supreme Court will decide soon whether to hear an appeal of a legislative redistricting case from Wisconsin that has implications for nearly every other state, including Vermont.
The current map of Wisconsin state legislative districts was drawn in 2011, using data from the 2010 U.S. Census. In the November 2010 election, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor did not seek another term. Republican Scott Walker won the open-seat election with 52 percent of the vote. Heading into the election, Democrats had small majorities in both houses of the Wisconsin Legislature. Republicans gained four seats in the Senate and nine in the House, enabling them to win control of both chambers. 
Walker and legislative Republicans decided that one of their top priorities for their first session, in 2011, would be to draw new legislative district lines that would perpetuate the Republican majorities. These districts were challenged in federal court on the grounds that the Republicans gerrymandered the district map to such an extent that voters’ right to free and fair elections was violated. Specifically, the challengers claimed that, by systematically discriminating against non-Republican voters, the Wisconsin GOP had violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s command that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
By a two-to-one majority, a lower federal court ruled in favor of the challengers, and directed the Wisconsin Legislature to redraw the district lines in a way that was less disadvantageous to non-Republican voters. In doing so, the court placed great emphasis on the results of the 2012 election, in which Republican candidates, in the aggregate, won 48.6 percent of all votes cast for the Wisconsin House, but ended up winning 61 percent of the seats.
Wisconsin officials have appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. Over the past 50 years, the Supreme Court has struck down many state legislative maps on grounds that they violate the “one person-one vote” rule, because districts deviate too far from population equality. In many states, primarily in the South, the court has also struck down district maps on grounds that they unconstitutionally discriminate against African-American and Latino voters.
To date, the Supreme Court has never ruled against a set of legislative districts on grounds that partisan gerrymandering discriminates against supporters of the party that does not hold a majority in the legislature. The Wisconsin case provides the opportunity for the justices to consider that question.
In a few states, such as California, Washington and Arizona, voters have approved referendums that take legislative redistricting out of the hands of the legislature itself and assign it to a bipartisan commission made up of members who do not hold public office. In the great majority of states, state legislatures redraw the lines for both their own districts and the U.S. House of Representatives through the normal legislative process.
If the Supreme Court were to rule against the Wisconsin legislative districts, other maps all over the country would be open to constitutional challenges. There is strong evidence that at least some of the Republicans’ current majority in the U.S. House is attributable to gerrymandered district lines, often by packing large majorities of Democratic voters into a small number of districts.
While the line-drawing process for Vermont’s legislative districts is generally considered less partisan than in many other states, a ruling against Wisconsin could open the at-large Chittenden Senate district of six members to a constitutional challenge. A voter in Chittenden County can influence the choice of 20 percent of the 30-member Senate. A voter in Addison County can influence the choice of only 6.7 percent of the Senate. Why should the voter in Chittenden County have three times the influence of the voter in Addison County?
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Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.

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