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Meet the man who may end gerrymandering: A retired Wisconsin law professor’s Supreme Court case could save democracy

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Bill Whitford and his friends met in a Madison tea room to talk politics. Now his case could shape history

Gerrymandering, the process of drawing distorted legislative districts to undermine democracy, is as old as our republic itself. Just as ancient: the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to get involved and determine a standard for when a partisan gerrymander has gone too far.

That might be changing. During the 2000s, Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed openness to a judicial remedy, if an evenhanded measure could be devised to identify when aggressive redistricting was no longer just politics as usual.

When the pivotal swing justice looks for a standard, law professors and redistricting nerds get to work. There are now several cases related to the extreme maps drawn after the 2010 census – by Republicans in Wisconsin and North Carolina, and by Democrats in Maryland – on a collision course with the Supreme Court.

The case with the most promise to deliver a lasting judicial remedy is Whitford v. Gill, from Wisconsin, which advances a fascinating standard called the “efficiency gap.” It is the brainchild of law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos and political scientist Eric McGhee, but has an elegant simplicity that is easily understandable outside of academia. If gerrymandering is the dark art of wasting the other party’s votes – either by “packing” them into as few districts as possible, or “cracking” them into sizable minorities in many seats – the efficiency gap compares wasted votes that do not contribute to victory.

In November, a panel of federal judges smiled upon this standard and ruled that the state assembly districts drawn by a Republican legislature in the Whitford case represented an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. “Although Wisconsin’s natural political geography plays some role in the apportionment process, it simply does not explain adequately the sizable disparate” advantage held by Republicans under these new maps, wrote the court.

The judges ordered new state assembly maps in time for the 2018 election – a big deal, considering these district lines have helped give Republicans their largest legislative majorities in several decades, despite years in which Democratic candidates receive more votes. But just as important, it accepted the “efficiency gap” rationale and sent it toward Justice Kennedy. If Kennedy finds it workable, it would become much more difficult for politicians to choose their own voters and rig maps in their favor.

If this case makes history, it will be thanks to the commitment of lawyers and political scientists, but also to the Wisconsin citizens who launched it, starting with regular meetings at a Madison tea room. The plaintiff whose name could become synonymous with taming the gerrymander and restoring fairness and competitiveness to our elections is a retired law professor named Bill Whitford. We sat down at a redistricting conference at Duke University this month to discuss his case, the efficiency gap and all the luck it has required along the way.

(interview follows)

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http://www.salon.com/2017/03/26/meet-the-man-who-may-end-gerrymandering-a-retired-wisconsin-law-professors-supreme-court-case-could-save-democracy/


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