The U.S. Supreme Court this fall will hear a series of blockbuster cases dealing with core constitutional rights and basic national values. Among the most important is Gill vs. Whitford, a Wisconsin case that asks the justices to address the toxic threat of partisan gerrymandering. With Whitford, Americans — who by wide margins say they are fed up with gerrymandering — may finally get the breakthrough they have long sought. The court has already tried and failed several times to limit politicians’ power to manipulate electoral maps for partisan ends. Its failures have paved the way for so-called extreme partisan gerrymanders, electoral maps drawn by politicians and paid consultants that lock in a statewide majority for their party, through good and bad election cycles. But there is reason to believe that the Wisconsin case, which the court will take up Oct. 3, may turn out differently. Several crucial factors have aligned to make judicial action both relatively easy and absolutely necessary.
To start, the Wisconsin voters who brought the case aren’t asking the court to rule on everything that’s problematic about the ways our districts are created and our legislatures operate. They simply want the court to determine if Wisconsin’s General Assembly map — a textbook example of extreme gerrymandering — is beyond the constitutional pale. (Of course, a ruling against Wisconsin would have ramifications for extreme gerrymanders elsewhere in the country.)
In 2010, Wisconsin Republicans rode a wave election to a majority in the state Legislature. They then used their majority — and the control over the redistricting process it got them — to draw new electoral maps. A team of aides and consultants supervised by the leaders of the state’s Republican caucus retreated to an off-site “map room,” where they used voter data and statistical analyses to engineer a map that would, according to one aide’s notes, “determine who’s here 10 years from now.” Their plan worked: In 2012, Republicans won 60 out of the assembly’s 99 seats with just 48.6% of the two-party statewide vote, and Republicans have maintained their majority since.