As voters in many states learn more about the ongoing practice and effects of partisan gerrymandering, a high-profile lawsuit originating in Wisconsin may have profound implications for how much a political party can do to keep itself in power. The U.S. Supreme Court announced June 19 that it would hear an appeal in Gill v. Whitford, a challenge to the legislative districts Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled legislature approved in 2011. It’s always thorny to try and predict how the justices will rule on a given case based on their previous rulings and writings, and what they eventually end up asking in oral arguments. But it is helpful to focus in on the specific questions at issue, not just the greater policy implications.
One of the questions at issue in this case — “Are partisan-gerrymandering claims justiciable?” — will hinge largely on a novel argument that the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center made in filing the lawsuit on behalf of 12 Democratic-leaning voters in Wisconsin. In a Time op-ed published June 23, one Gill plaintiff said partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin effectively allows legislators to chose their voters, rather than the other way around.
The lawsuit argues that if more voters from one party than another are effectively wasting their votes, then district maps may be so partisan as to be unconstitutional. For instance, the Campaign Legal Center has pointed to the fact that in 2012, Republican candidates for the Wisconsin Assembly received about 49 percent of the statewide vote, but won 60 percent of that chamber’s seats. This difference is called the “efficiency gap.”