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Federal Court Rules Wisconsin Legislative Map Violates The Constitution


One reason Republicans control so many state legislatures is gerrymandering. After winning big in 2010, Republicans across the country redrew legislative districts to favor their party. Partisan gerrymandering like this has survived three decades' worth of legal challenges even at the Supreme Court.

But now a panel of federal judges has struck down the legislative map for the Wisconsin State Assembly, saying it was meant to deprive Democratic voters of their right to be represented. Earlier today, I talked to Shawn Johnson of Wisconsin Public Radio who explained what makes this case different from previous challenges.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: Well, this case is unique among other redistricting cases in the way that it went after Wisconsin's Republican-drawn legislative map. So it's not unheard of for a court to strike down legislative maps on other grounds - diluting the voices of minority voters, for example. But this case really sets out a challenge. It says you can actually have a redistricting plan that's so partisan that it's unconstitutional, that it's a political gerrymander.

MCEVERS: So explain what that means. What is a political gerrymander, according to the court?

JOHNSON: Well, what these plaintiffs were trying to do is go back and look at the results in Wisconsin in 2012, for example. President Obama did very well here. It was a decent democratic year. And yet Democrats gained no seats in the legislature, remained deeply in the minority. And even in 2016, even though it wasn't part of this lawsuit, you look at Wisconsin - it was essentially a 50-50 year for races at the top of the ticket, like in the race for president or U.S. Senate. And yet Republicans actually added seats in the legislature to the point that even though Wisconsin is a 50-50 state, they have almost two-thirds of the seats in the legislature.

MCEVERS: What would it take for the U.S. Supreme Court to take up this case?

JOHNSON: This case is really geared toward getting the attention of Justice Anthony Kennedy. Back in 2004, in another redistricting case, he sort of hinted that he was open to the idea of a partisan redistricting challenge if someone could come up with the metric. I mean I think people have known for a long time that partisanship exists in the redistricting process. Kennedy's concern seems to be - how do you measure that? They're trying to give the Supreme Court that metric.

MCEVERS: What is that metric?

JOHNSON: The metric that they came up with they called the efficiency gap, and it measures what they call wasted votes. Let's say you have a strongly Democratic district. And if a Democrat got a lot of votes there, but they only get one seat, they're saying that they wasted a lot of votes to get those seats. If Democrats come up just short in a lot of other districts, they're saying they wasted those votes as well.

So they compare that district-by-district to the statewide total, and that gives them this efficiency gap measure. And by that metric, plaintiffs looked back at redistricting plans throughout the U.S., going back to 1972, and Wisconsin's redistricting plan was one of the most strongly political gerrymandered in history.

MCEVERS: So what happens next?

JOHNSON: Well, there are a lot of questions we just don't know the answer to. For one, we don't know what this panel of federal judges are going to say happens next in Wisconsin. Are they going to redraw our map themselves? Are they going to direct the legislature to redraw the map using new standards? We just don't know at this point.

There's a good chance it's going to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Wisconsin's attorney general has already said he wants to take it there. And then you have a lot of questions. Is this going to be the kind of case that Justice Anthony Kennedy and four other justices are looking for? If it is, then it could lead to similar lawsuits being filed throughout the country and other maps being challenged on these grounds in other states.

MCEVERS: Shawn Johnson is the state capital bureau chief for Wisconsin Public Radio. Thank you.

JOHNSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shawn Johnson covers the State Capitol for Wisconsin Public Radio. Shawn joined the network in 2004. Prior to that he worked for WUIS-FM, a public radio station in Springfield, Illinois. There, Shawn reported on the Illinois legislature. He also managed the station's western Illinois bureau, where he produced features on issues facing rural residents. He previously worked as an Assistant Producer for WBBM-AM radio in Chicago.