Gill v. Whitford
WISCONSIN’S PARTISAN GERRYMANDER
Partisan gerrymandering, or the drawing of electoral district lines to benefit one political party, is a serious problem in our democracy. In jurisdictions nationwide, legislators have drawn legislative maps so that they can choose their voters, instead of voters being able to choose their representatives. In 2011, Republican legislators in Wisconsin redrew the state Assembly districts to maintain Republican control. They did this in a secret office – away from the Capitol, the public, and the press – and then rushed the passage of their plan through the Assembly. Their strategy paid off, with Republicans gaining 60 percent of the seats in the State Assembly, despite receiving only 49 percent of the statewide vote in 2012.
THE INCREASING NEED FOR A LEGAL STANDARD
It’s clear the current redistricting process is undermining our democracy and partisan gerrymandering has become the political weapon of choice for legislators to maintain political power. The U.S. Supreme Court held that it has the authority and responsibility to decide partisan gerrymandering claims, and in 2006, a majority of justices agreed that excessive partisan gerrymandering violates the Constitution.
However, the Court has yet to adopt a standard for determining whether a redistricting plan constitutes a partisan gerrymander. Every proposed test to date has been deemed unworkable by the courts – too ambiguous and subjective to reliably identify the most objectionable plans. Without a legal standard, voters are free to challenge politically motivated maps in court, but judges, without clear guidance, ordinarily dismiss these cases out of hand. The result is voters, like those in Wisconsin, are unable to hold their representatives accountable and reign in extreme partisan gerrymanders.
A LEGAL CHALLENGE TO STOP PARTISAN GERRYMANDERS NATIONWIDE
CLC is part of a litigation team representing 12 Wisconsin voters who have challenged the state’s Assembly district lines as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander in Gill v. Whitford. Our case is the first purely partisan gerrymandering case to go to trial in 30 years. Through this litigation, the plaintiffs seek to establish for the first time a manageable standard by which courts nationwide can analyze partisan gerrymandering claims.
ON TO THE SUPREME COURT
On November 21, 2016, a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin struck down Wisconsin’s state assembly district map. With this decision, plaintiffs have successfully alleged and proven that a state legislative redistricting plan is an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander for the first time in 30 years.
The ruling issued by the court stated the following:
“We find that Act 43 was intended to burden the representational rights of Democratic voters throughout the decennial period by impeding their ability to translate their votes into legislative seats. Moreover, as demonstrated by the results of the 2012 and 2014 elections, among other evidence, we conclude that Act 43 has had its intended effect.”
The plaintiffs’ three-part test, which was adopted in this case, can now be used across the country to fight back against unfair partisan gerrymandering.
The state of Wisconsin filed their notice of appeal on Feb. 24, 2017 and their opposition to CLC's motion to affirm on May 18, 2017.On June 19, 2017, the Supreme Court decided to hear oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford.
Oral arguments for this case were held before the Supreme Court on Oct. 3, 2017. Listen to the audio recording.
Read our one pager about the case
MEET SOME OF THE PLAINTIFFS
Born and raised in Madison, Wisconsin, Bill Whitford was an engaged citizen from a very young age thanks to his politically active mother who “was head over heels for Adlai Stevenson!” At 14, he was too young to vote, but not too young to knock on doors and stuff envelopes with his mother. Bill studied at the University of Wisconsin at Madison where he became president of the campus Young Democrats.
Although he’s lived in Nairobi, New Haven, and Tanzania, “I never really left Madison. This is where my family, friends, and community are.” He remained politically active while raising four children and teaching young law students for 40 years. Bill has six grandchildren between the ages of 4 and 12.
The redistricting of 2011 became a topic of conversation among Bill and a number of friends who met regularly at a Milwaukee tearoom to discuss politics. When Whitford saw that Democrats got a majority of the vote for the assembly statewide in 2012 but won only 40% of the seats, he was strongly motivated to become part of the lawsuit.
Emily Bunting has lived in Wisconsin for 26 years. She raised her children in a rural community in Richland county. There she works as a small organic farmer, raising greens in a high tunnel from fall through spring.
Her parents met after World War II while doing reconstruction work in Italy so she grew up in a family that was always socially and politically active. “I’ve always voted,” Emily says, “But now I feel that my vote doesn’t count.”
In 2011, the redistricting plan drawn by Republicans “cracked” Emily’s district, placing her family within the Democratic minority in a new district and a new community with a new representative.
As a result, her ability to make an impact in local affairs is diminished. She’s called and written her representative about issues in the district, including deteriorating roads, inadequate school funding, and potential groundwater contamination – to no avail. Emily says, “Our state representative used to answer our phone calls, and now he won’t. Before the redistricting, people could organize and fight...in our old district, we at least had some kind of impact.”
Helen Harris’s father came to Milwaukee from Louisiana in 1948 as part of the great African-American migration north, and worked at American Motors. Helen and her cousins were the first of their family to graduate both high school and college. She became an educator, working first as an elementary school teacher, then an administrator, and finally as a school principal. Since her retirement, Helen has been volunteering at three schools – including the high school she graduated from and the school her grandchildren attend.
Participating in democracy is a value deeply instilled in her by her parents. Helen has proudly voted in every election from school board to governor.
A lifelong Democrat, Helen has always lived in one of Milwaukee’s three majority black and Democratic State Assembly districts on the northwest side of Milwaukee. After the redistricting of 2011 placed Helen and her neighbors in a suburban district, Helen found that not only did her new representative not respond to her phone calls and letters, but she didn’t even campaign in her neighborhood. “I feel voiceless,” says Helen. “I don’t feel connected to my district or representative anymore.”
Wendy Sue Johnson loves knowing everyone in Eau Claire, where she was born and raised, and where she raised her own two children. “I have deep connections here,” she says. “My dad was part of the high school’s first graduating class. I was part of its 25th class, and my daughter was part of its 50th!” Now enjoying a second career as a family law attorney, Wendy is a former teacher and mother of two who cares passionately about education and served two full terms on the local school board.
As a result of the 2011 redistricting, Democratic voters were “packed” into Wendy Sue’s district, making nearby districts significantly easier for Republicans to win. Many of Wendy Sue’s neighbors now live in a different district - in fact the boundaries separating Wendy Sue’s house from other districts runs along the side of her home and immediately across the street from her side door.
Wendy Sue is worried about candidates who don’t need to compete for votes and representatives who can afford to become unresponsive to voters. “When representatives have to work hard for your vote, once elected they need to listen to a variety of opinions, and hear all sides. Now there’s little accountability.”
REPUBLICAN SUPPORT FOR CURBING PARTISAN GERRYMANDERING
Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-CA) - “Thirty years ago, my hero, Ronald Reagan, called partisan gerrymandering ‘antidemocratic and un-American. And it’s only gotten worse since then. It’s time for the Supreme Court to step up and rein in this corrosive, rigged practice that undermines our leaders’ ability to come together as Americans and solve our pressing challenges. When our average margin of victory in congressional races hit 37% last year, it should have been a wake-up call to all politicians to quit acting like banana republic dictators and allow fair elections with districts that represent the people, not the parties. Quite simply, gerrymandering must be terminated and the sooner the better.” – (Brief)
Governor John Kasich (R-OH) - “The Court has a unique opportunity in this case to support fair, common sense standards for how districts are drawn and put legislators in a better position to work together to effectively govern and get results.” – (Brief, Tweet)
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) - “This new breed of ‘bulk’ partisan gerrymandering distorts statewide votes, systematically diluting the effect of votes based on political affiliation and leading to the election of congressional and state legislative delegations that do not represent the will of the voters. This practice violates ‘the core principle of republican government, namely, that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around.’” – (Brief)
Former Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME)- “The promise of the United States Congress is finding common ground to solve America’s greatest challenges. Unprecedented levels of partisanship and polarization have degraded that promise and extreme partisan gerrymandering deserves a share of the blame. When the only races that matter are partisan primaries, there are regrettably no incentives to build consensus across the political aisle – which is the only way to solve problems. I encourage the Supreme Court to curb excessive partisan gerrymandering and help our Congress return to the problem-solving body our founders intended it to be.” – (Brief)
Former Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) - “For decades, leaders on both sides of the aisle adhered to the notion that partisanship stopped at the water’s edge. Unfortunately, today’s unrelenting partisanship on Capitol Hill means that that notion too often falls by the wayside. One of the causes of this dynamic is gerrymandering, whereby too many seats are safely controlled by one party or the other. For the good of our country, I urge the Supreme Court to take a stand and help curtail this practice.”- (Brief)
Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) - “The Framers intended the House of Representatives to be the ‘People’s House’ – an institution directly accountable to the electorate through frequent and competitive elections. Extreme partisan redistricting undermines constituent-focused representation and forces lawmakers to ideological extremes, growing the divide of partisanship that grinds the gears of government to a halt. Basic limits on extreme gerrymandering will make Congress a more representative institution by giving the American People fewer politicians and more independent voices focused on serving.” – (Brief)
Partisan gerrymandering is increasingly becoming the political weapon of choice for legislators to maintain power. Currently, politicians are allowed to choose their own voters and draw voting maps that are self-serving, at the expense of American voters and our democracy as a whole. The practice is to blame for Americans’ distrust in our government, and a significant reason for the hyper-partisanship and political gridlock we currently see in state and federal politics.
Make Democracy Count details how partisan gerrymandering creates an unrepresentative and unfair democracy and encourages self-interested politics. The report also showcases the toll this undemocratic practice has on real voters.
In addition, CLC’s report explains the efficiency gap, a solution for measuring partisan effects put forward in the case, Gill v. Whitford.