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Thursday, April 7, 2016

 5:10 PM 

Dem redistricting suit headed to trial

A Dem lawsuit challenging the Assembly map Republicans drew in 2011 as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander is headed to trial after a federal court rejected the state DOJ's request to dismiss the suit.

The trial, scheduled to begin May 24, will determine whether the court should adopt the Dems' proposed test for determining whether legislative districts were illegally gerrymandered. The three-judge panel of the Western District in Madison wrote Thursday there's a genuine dispute over what the Dem plaintiffs call the "efficiency gap" in the maps and if it's a strong indicator of a discriminatory effect. It would be "premature" to grant DOJ's motion for summary judgment, the panel said. 

DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said, "While we are disappointed that the court decided to allow the case to go to trial, we are confident the State will ultimately prevail on the merits of the case." 

Getting to trial is a rare victory for someone challenging a map for being allegedly gerrymandered for political affiliation, and Thursday's ruling notes the U.S. Supreme Court has "struggled to determine the appropriate test for gerrymanders based on political affiliation." 

That has left it up to lower courts to find a workable standard for deciding the validity of a map, the ruling noted. 

Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project that is organizing the lawsuit, said lawyers in the case tell him this is the first time in 30 years a lawsuit challenging maps solely on partisan gerrymandering grounds has made it past the motion to dismiss and will head to trial. Other gerrymandering cases the federal courts have heard, he said, have dealt with issues such as the racial composition of districts. 

Chheda said the suit wants the Wisconsin Assembly maps thrown out immediately. Nationally, the suit could lead to limits on how much states can draw districts for partisan reasons and lead to suits in other states. 

"If we win, there will be a national standard for how much partisan gerrymandering is too much partisan gerrymandering, and there will be an objective, mathematical standard that states can look at to say this map is too partisan," he said. 

The suit accuses Republicans of "packing" and "cracking" Dems in order to unconstitutionally maximize the number of Assembly seats they hold. 

Packing refers to concentrating a party's voters into districts they win by overwhelming numbers while cracking means divided them up into multiple seats so they fall short of the majority in each one. 

Republicans now control the Assembly 63-36, their largest majority in the chamber since the 1950s. 

The Wisconsin DOJ has argued Dems are naturally packed into a smaller number of districts because of where they live, such as urban areas.

At the heart of the suit is a standard the Dem challengers call the "efficiency gap," which they say captures the number of "wasted" votes in an election. It defines "wasted" as a vote cast for a candidate who loses or one for the winner in excess of what was needed for victory. 

The court wrote the Dems will have the burden at trial to prove GOP lawmakers acted with "discriminatory intent." 

The court told both sides today to prepare for a trial that lasts no more than four days. 

-- By JR Ross


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