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Digging Deeper: Supreme Court assesses partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin

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La Crosse, WI (WXOW) -

The right of the people to choose their representatives is a pillar of democracy. A new case going before the Supreme Court claims that right may be in jeopardy within the state of Wisconsin.

States redraw legislative districts every ten years to reflect a changing population. That process is called redistricting. Partisan gerrymandering involves redrawing district lines to favor one political party over another.

On Tuesday, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in a Wisconsin case called Gill v. Whitford. The justices will consider the question of whether there is a constitutional limit to leveraging partisan power.

Jerome Gundersen and Maureen Freedland are two La Crosse County Board Supervisors who typically have opposing political views. They found common ground co-sponsoring a bipartisan redistricting resolution in August.

"I thought that it was really important to have a bipartisan co-sponsored resolution that would really bring up the issues of gerrymandering that everyone could understand and that we could agree on," Freedland said. "I believe that this is an issue that affects Democrats and Republicans and something we all need to be concerned about."

"I'm participating in this because I think it stands up for people who actually go out and vote," Gundersen said. "I want to make sure that they're vote is an important act."

La Crosse County is just one of twenty-nine counties across the state to adopt this resolution in an effort to end partisan gerrymandering.

"The resolution points out that gerrymandering doesn't allow people to have a fair voice, and that it's unfair to the voters," Freedland said. "That the lines should be drawn in an open way, and that they shouldn't necessarily be drawn by the party that has won the election just because they won. "

"I think that it's important to say there's something going on here that isn't quite right and we've gone too far," Gundersen said. "We need to slow things down on how this is done. We need to evaluate the process."

Known as the Fair Map Movement, the resolutions have been passed at a time when Wisconsin's assembly district lines are being called into question in the Supreme Court case Gill v. Whitford.

"It had become very clear that it was essentially impossible for Democrats to elect a majority in the State Assembly under this gerrymandering, and the 2012 election made that clear," said William Whitford, Plaintiff of Gill v. Whitford.

The Constitution allows states to decide how district lines are drawn, and in the state of Wisconsin, that privilege falls to lawmakers in power.

"They get to redraw district lines so that the districts are balanced in terms of how many people are in each district," said Tim Dale, Associate Professor of Political Science at UW-La Crosse. "But what they have a wide latitude with is where they draw those district lines."

Democrats and Republicans have used redistricting as an opportunity to gain political advantage.

"Gerrymandering for political purpose is something that any legislature does regardless of who is in power," Dale said. "So, if the Democrats are in power and they get to redraw district lines, they have historically redrawn district lines to benefit them. If the Republicans are in power and they get to redraw district lines, they get to redraw district lines to benefit them."

"We get this perpetual whoever's not in charge doesn't like the maps that are drawn," said Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel. "They go to the courts and try to appeal it."

The question before the Supreme Court is whether gerrymandering can reach such an extreme point that it becomes unconstitutional.

"This is the classic question for the Supreme Court," Dale said. "There are states rights being weighed against individual voter rights, and so the question the court has to decide is whether or not the state's right to make a decision is held over individual voters who may or may not vote depending on how district lines are drawn."

This is not the first time the Supreme Court heard a case regarding partisan gerrymandering; however, political scientists say technology and data analysis make the intent easier to prove.

"Now for the first time, when districts are being drawn, there's a scientific process that legislators can use," said Dale. "Now district lines can be drawn looking at where people live and predicting voting patterns."

"Those hard drives contained smoking gun evidence, and the state didn't really contest it," Whitford said.

"The modern day of a smoke-filled room. You know back in the day, bosses got in the back room with the cigars and figured out where the districts are going to be," Gundersen said. "Now, it's all done on the computer system."

The Supreme Court could decide to rule on the case after analyzing all of the evidence, changing the redistricting process in the state of Wisconsin and across the United States.

"Voters at least are going to notice a change in the map, but they also might notice a change in results," Dale said. "That's where districts might have to be redrawn to reflect something more objective and that might actually change who gets elected."

Regardless of the outcome of Gill v. Whitford, Freedland and Gundersen say the resolution will serve as a reminder that La Crosse County will continue to stand against gerrymandering, demonstrating the importance of parties coming together to foster bipartisanship.

One alternative method of redistricting used by some states is a non-partisan group of mapmakers. Iowa is one state using this system which takes redistricting out of the hands of legislators. 

Depending on the outcome of Gill v. Whitford, Schimel says it is not likely that Wisconsin lawmakers would choose to adopt that method. The legislators would have to vote on and pass to change the current system which Schimel says is deeply rooted in tradition. 

There is no easy solution to ending gerrymandering. Schimel tells News 19 that finding the perfect solution would be the equivalent of finding a political unicorn.

Voters should not expect a ruling anytime soon. Ultimately, this decision may hing on how much partisanship is too much, and court observers point out the Supreme Court by a 5 to 4 vote refused to outlaw even extreme partisan gerrymandering in the past. Those on the case say it will take weeks or even months for the judges to deliberate.

A ruling is expected to be given in time for lines to be redrawn for the 2018 elections.

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