When the U.S. Supreme Court decided to send the challenge that Wisconsinites have mounted to gerrymandering back to the district court for further consideration, the fight for fair lines and real competition in our elections returned to the political arena.
The courts may yet find a way to prevent politicians from gaming the system in their favor — and against the interests of the electorate — but for now the best prospect for reform rests with candidates for governor and the Legislature.
Elect the right candidates and the change can be made — no matter what the courts do.
Elect the wrong candidates and we will be stuck with gerrymandered lines that prevent government from reflecting the will of the people.
That is the stark choice that Wisconsinites face, as Gov. Scott Walker made clear following the court’s decision.
Walker’s power extends from gerrymandering, which has given his Republican allies control of the state Assembly and state Senate. The governor is so committed to keeping the corrupted lines that he lied — about the court’s decision.
Walker said: “I think the lines are fair when we signed them, and the bottom line in this is that the United States Supreme Court, on a unanimous decision, decided the state of Wisconsin was right in its case.”
In fact, the justices have sent the case back for further consideration by the lower court that has already determined the lines are unfair. Because members of the high court had doubts about whether the specific plaintiffs in this case had standing to challenge the lines, new rounds of legal wrangling will now begin.
To be sure, the delay is frustrating for reformers. The decision, explained The New York Times, was “a setback for critics of partisan gerrymandering, who had hoped that the Supreme Court would decide the cases on their merits and rule in their favor, transforming American democracy by subjecting to close judicial scrutiny oddly shaped districts that amplify one party’s political power.”
That does not mean, as Walker seemed to suggest, that the fight against partisan gerrymandering is finished. The court invited additional litigation. Bill Whitford, the retired University of Wisconsin law professor who was the named plaintiff in the Wisconsin case, said, “We are confident we can prove the real harms to real citizens caused by lawmakers who choose their voters instead of the voters choosing their representatives.”
Paul Smith, the vice president of litigation and strategy at the Campaign Legal Center, who argued Whitford’s case before the court in October 2017, said: “This case is very much still alive. We now have the opportunity to demonstrate the real and concrete harms that result from partisan gerrymandering in the lower court, the same court that struck down the Wisconsin mapping scheme to begin with.”
Why would Walker lie about the Supreme Court decision?
Because he needs gerrymandering to be able to continue to enact laws that are not popular with the people but that satisfy his campaign donors. As such, he wants the debate about gerrymandering to go away.
But it is not going away.
If Walker is beaten this year, Wisconsin will not have to wait for the courts to sort things out. We can end gerrymandering.
All of the serious contenders for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination have sent more honest signals than the incumbent. But some were clearer than others.
The most impressive response to the Supreme Court ruling came from former state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, who said, “As governor, I will veto any maps that give one party an unfair advantage, and will work to restore voting rights and ethics in government, so that Wisconsinites can have faith that our elected representatives serve our needs rather than their own.”
That’s the gold-standard response.
Roys outlined a strong and specific position. People know what she is for — and what she is against.
Voters should look for a similar level of clarity in the statements from legislative candidates. If candidates for the Assembly and Senate fail to express a clear commitment to fair lines and honest elections, don’t vote for them. If candidates put themselves on the side of reform — aggressively and unequivocally — they are worthy of consideration.
A commitment to end gerrymandering is not all that voters should seek from candidates. Real reformers must also advocate for campaign-finance reform, removal of the barriers to voting that Walker and his allies have erected, and a renewal of the state’s commitment to high-turnout elections that put power in the hands of the voters rather than the politicians.
But if a candidate cannot provide clarity on the issue of gerrymandering, he or she should not be in the Legislature — or the governor’s mansion.
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