Nothing so defines partisan control of the US House of Representatives and state legislatures across the country as the gerrymandering of district lines by politicians who game the process in favor of themselves and their parties. Money in politics matters, as do archaic voting processes and dysfunctional media. But when district lines are drawn to give an overwhelming advantage to one party and its candidates, competition dies—and future election results are essentially set in stone.
So anything that upsets gerrymandering is a big deal for democracy.
And Monday’s decision by a panel of three federal judges to strike down Wisconsin legislative maps that were drawn by Governor Scott Walker’s Republicans in 2011 is a very big deal.
The judges determined that the radically gerrymandered maps were drawn by the Republicans in a manner that was “intended to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters throughout the [10-year] period by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats.”
There is no question that the judges were right from an electoral standpoint. For instance, in 2012, when Democratic President Barack Obama swept to an easy victory in Wisconsin, and when Democratic US Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin was elected with a substantial majority, Democrats won 53 percent of the statewide vote for State Assembly seats. Yet, the Republicans maintained a 60-39 majority in the legislative chamber.
The districts were so thoroughly gerrymandered in favor of the Republicans that a 200,000-vote statewide advantage for the Democrats meant nothing.
That’s what got a group of lawyers thinking that an unprecedented court challenge to gerrymandering might just gain traction. They were right. The panel of federal judges determined, with a 2-1 vote, that the Republican maps were unconstitutional.
“We find that the discriminatory effect is not explained by the political geography of Wisconsin nor is it justified by a legitimate state interest,” declared the majority decision. “Consequently, Act 43 [the Republican gerrymandering scheme] constitutes an unconstitutional political gerrymander.”
This is a big deal for Wisconsin, and potentially for the rest of the country. An appeal by Republican partisans to the US Supreme Court is all but certain. But the decision by the veteran federal jurists is carefully constructed to withstand challenges. If it is upheld it will lead to a redrawing of maps in Wisconsin—not just for the State Assembly but for the State Senate, which is made up of districts based on the Assembly maps. If and when a democracy standard is established for the drawing of legislative districts, other states will surely see challenges. And a discussion about the gerrymandering of congressional district lines could open.