MADISON, Wisconsin — A legal fight over the way legislative districts are drawn in Wisconsin could have implications for Illinois voters who have called for similar reform.
A three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin ruled in favor of 12 Wisconsin voters who claim state Republicans’ redistricting plan “systematically dilutes the voting strength of Democratic voters statewide.” On Nov. 21, the court struck down the state assembly district map created in 2011, saying it “constitutes an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.”
“We find that Act 43 (the redistricting plan) 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,” Circuit Judge Kenneth Ripple wrote in the decision. “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. Finally, we find that the discriminatory effect is not explained by the political geography of Wisconsin nor is it justified by a legitimate state interest.”
The Campaign Legal Center, based in Washington, D.C., was part of a litigation team representing the voters who brought the lawsuit. Ruth Greenwood, who works with the center as the deputy director of redistricting and helped with the Wisconsin case, previously served on the board of the Independent Maps Coalition in Illinois. The coalition tried to get an amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot that would allow voters to approve a plan reforming the state’s rules for drawing district maps. The Illinois Supreme Court blocked the measure from appearing on the ballot.
Greenwood told the Cook County Record she got involved with the Wisconsin case after seeing Republicans redraw maps in secret, and then rush them through the state legislature. In addition to district maps, the Republican-controlled state government took other partisan steps that would impact future elections, including passing a strict voter ID law.
“These are hallmarks of a party trying to entrench itself in power,” she said.
But Wisconsin Republicans aren’t the only ones doing this, she said — the scenario is flipped in Illinois.
“Both sides do this. They’re both awful,” Greenwood said.
The parties in the suit have 30 days to submit remedy suggestions. The state can still appeal. If it does, the case goes directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“They can’t not take it,” Greenwood said. “If the state appeals — and they’ve said that they will — we should get a statement from on high.”
In addition to the possibility that the Supreme Court will weigh in, a three-part test adopted in the case can be used elsewhere to bring claims of unfair partisan gerrymandering. This could be good news for Illinois, where the redistricting process is “hyper-partisan” and bent on keeping incumbents in power, Ra Joy, executive director of CHANGE Illinois, told the Cook County Record. The ruling in Wisconsin affirms that this is an area in need of reform and provides a judicial pathway, he said.
In Illinois, Independent Maps Coalition blamed “career politicians” who draw district maps behind closed doors. They called for a “transparent, impartial and fair” process, instead. Since the amendment was disallowed, CHANGE Illinois has taken up the cause. Founded in 2009, CHANGE seeks government and political reform on issues that include competitive elections and redistricting.
Joy said the coalition is keeping an open mind as it presses on. Its options include litigation, as well as a legislative proposal and another attempt at a voter-led initiative. He said reform enjoys overwhelming support from citizens.
“While the pathway is still coming into focus, we know that one thing is for sure: Real change happens when citizens stand up strong, speak out, and urge their lawmakers to do what’s right. A top priority for CHANGE is to empower voters to stand up and speak out on this important issue,” he said. “We think it’s a matter of time before there’s meaningful redistricting reform in Illinois. Reform is going to happen. It’s not a question of if — it’s a question of when and how.”