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Politics & Government

November 2016: Federal Court Rules Wisconsin's GOP-Drawn Political Maps Unconstitutional

Wisconsin State Legislature
Map of Wisconsin Assembly Districts

A three-judge federal panel ruled on Monday that the political boundaries state Republican legislators drew in 2011 violate the voting rights of Democrats. Wisconsin's Attorney  General says he plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

About a dozen Democrats had sued, claiming their votes didn't really matter - because the new boundaries left only a handful of legislative districts up for grabs. Instead, most were majority Democrat or Republican - with the GOP holding the largest share. Another contention was that most state voters in the 2012 Assembly elections were Democrats (1.4 million voters), yet Republicans (1.2 million voters) overwhelmingly captured the chamber (60-39 seats).

Republicans had sole control of the redistricting process following the 2010 census, because they had won control of the Assembly and Senate. In many past decades, judges did the reapportioning because state government was split between the two parties.

Attorneys for the state have insisted that Wisconsin was simply starting to trend Republican, and that's why the GOP started winning and keeping control of the 33-seat Senate and 99-seat Assembly. The architects did redraw two districts in Milwaukee, after a federal court ruled that the original maps diluted the Latino vote there.

The state can appeal Monday's federal court ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, and state Attorney General Brad Schimel says he does plan to appeal the 159-page decision. Because the case was heard by a three-court federal panel, it would be routed directly to the high court, if appealed.

"This 2-1 decision does not affect the results of this month’s election or any prior election and legislative district boundaries remain unchanged until the court rules on any remedy,” Schimel said via a written statement.

What has made the Wisconsin case unique among others that have been litigated over redistricting is the fact that researchers devised what they call an Efficiency Gap. It indicates how many votes in the state may, in fact, suddenly not matter because of the new make-up of the legislative districts. While the desired gap is zero, indicating neither party gained or lost influence, the Wisconsin gap was 13%, much wider than most others studied for gerrymandering.

According to UW Political Scientist Barry Burden, Supreme Court Justice Kennedy has wanted the court to decide how much gerrymandering should be allowable, and the Wisconsin case may provide a number to consider. Burden says Kennedy might remain the swing vote in such a case, no matter which new justice future President Trump appoints to succeed the late Justice Scalia.

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