Wisconsin is at the forefront of national politics once more. One would think we’d get sick of having one of the best governors in the country who brought a historic Foxconn agreement to Wisconsin. Or perhaps being the proud home of the Speaker of the House. Or how about the home of former chief of staff to President Trump?
This time, the spotlight comes with more scrutiny. Gill v. Whitford was heard in front of the Supreme Court on Oct. 3 this year and represents the strongest test of political gerrymandering the highest federal court has undertaken, with new Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch playing a shining role in the appellee portion of oral argument.
In 2010, as Republicans swept statehouses across the nation, Wisconsin was no exception. Obtaining sole majority of all state level offices after the 2010 census, Republicans were in a unique position to redraw the Wisconsin voting district lines.
This practice of redrawing lines, colloquially called gerrymandering after Governor Elbridge Gerry back in the early 19th century, is widely criticized because it often allows a single political party to draw the lines in a way that is favorable politically.
This type of gerrymandering has come under much scrutiny. While racial gerrymandering — grouping certain racial groups within districts to limit minority representatives — was found unconstitutional back in 1993 in Shaw v. Reno, political gerrymandering has largely stood the test of time.
While gerrymandering may seem like a threat to democracy, a famous William Churchill quote comes to mind: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
Gerrymandering may seem like a poor system to determine how we geographically position our representatives, but we have yet to see a better proposal.
Since Gill v. Whitford is the topic of debate between ourselves and our friends in College Democrats, I’ll try to scratch the surface of some of the legal arguments made in oral arguments a couple weeks ago. Some of it may seem wonky, but I’ll keep it simple.
The first main source of disagreement was who had the standing to bring the case forward. The main plaintiff resided in southeastern Wisconsin, while the case largely dealt with districts in the north. We’ll set that part of the argument aside because it doesn’t deal with the real argument about the validity of gerrymandering.
The second argument dealt with what the plaintiff argued should be the manageable standard. A manageable standard is simply the basis by which Paul Smith, the appellee attorney, would like to see the court rule whether a district is gerrymandered or not.
Partisan asymmetry is ultimately the goal of the plaintiff within districts, so each party would receive the same number of votes if the district was gerrymandered in their favor. This is largely measured by the efficiency gap, which, for simplicity’s sake, is the percent of wasted votes, which the court has usually assigned an acceptable value of seven percent.
The justices questioned the validity of this measure, rightfully so, as it does little to ensure that the gap is the direct result of gerrymandering. While other measures were evaluated, none passed a test in my eyes, or in many of the justices, that would be a justifiable manageable standard.
The other worry of the justices was that the efficiency gap is not a constitutional matter, as Justice Roberts says: “It is just not, it seems, a palatable answer to say the ruling was based on the fact that EG was greater than 7 percent. That doesn’t sound like language in the Constitution.”
Third, the appellant attorney, Misha Tseytlin, brought up a study finding of that of the 17 absolute worst cases of gerrymandering, 10 were drawn by nonpartisan commissions or courts. This evidence brought forward by the appellee, mind you, demonstrates exactly how hard it is to draw politically neutral lines, and why legislative drawing should be upheld.
Lastly, Smith worried that not holding this case unconstitutional would open the floodgates to new, more egregious cases of gerrymandering. Tseytlin swiftly refuted that at the end of oral arguments, pointing out that gerrymandering was far worse as far back as 1972, than it is today, and that need not be a worry.
Our friends across the aisle will demand that the votes of all should be given equal weight, which sounds great to us too, but if the appellee failed to provide a manageable standard by which we can better control for gerrymandering, be wary that the College Democrats can either.
Jake Lubenow ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in political science and finance, he is also chairman of College Republicans.