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Thursday, June 20, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Wis. May Be Liable for Disenfranchising Voters

(CN) - The Wisconsin government must face a lawsuit over new redistricting legislation that would extend the time between state senator elections from four to six years, a panel of federal judges ruled.

Opponents say that the new law ignores both federal and state redistricting requirements that say "each district be compact, preserve the core population of prior districts, and preserve communities of interest - while still containing equal population."

In their complaint against the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, 15 citizens say that the "legislative districts have taken bizarre shapes ... [and] they do not preserve core populations from prior districts."

Additionally, "the new legislative districts do not preserve communities of interest and instead needlessly divide cities and other local government units," the complaint states. "If not otherwise enjoined or directed, the G.A.B. will carry out its statutory responsibilities involving the 2012 state legislative elections based on the impermissibly-drawn boundaries, which will harm the plaintiffs by violating their constitutional rights."

The board countered, however, that the allegations belong in state court and made other errors fatal to the case..

A three-judge panel convened by the Eastern District of Wisconsin disagreed.

"The plaintiffs' claims are ripe because a decision has been formalized," the unsigned decision states. "The governor has approved the redistricting law, and the court can now rule on challenges to that law without 'entangling' itself in 'abstract' matters."

"The court has no reason to abstain or defer, because it does not risk intruding upon the functions of Wisconsin's governing body," the panel added. "Wisconsin's legislative and executive branches have already concluded their redistricting efforts. ... Furthermore, its review will not intrude upon any judicial branch activity because there are no challenges to the redistricting efforts currently pending in Wisconsin's courts."

Federal court is also a valid venue for the case since the citizens have alleged a violation of their civil rights under the U.S. Constitution, the court held. "Wisconsin's law would strip the state's citizens of that federally-granted right, though, in cases where the redress being sought is related to the state's redistricting," the order states.

"Thus, if Wisconsin's law were construed to bar the plaintiffs' access to the federal court, it would conflict with the law of the United States and would have to give way to the laws of the United States - the supreme laws of the land."

Another argument that failed to sway the judges was that the plaintiffs had failed to state a claim. "The defendants argue that the plaintiffs fail to state a claim since 'the right to vote, per se, is not a constitutionally protected right,' and, thus, the court cannot grant relief to the plaintiffs on their claim that the redistricting law disenfranchises 300,000 Wisconsin citizens," according to the court. "The defendants are correct that the states can regulate elections, and even postpone the ability of some citizens to vote; but, the defendants fail to adequately acknowledge the principle that a redistricting plan cannot unnecessarily disenfranchise voters."

There is more than speculation to the allegations, according to the court. "The plaintiffs' amended complaint alleges that Wisconsin's redistricting law will result in the unnecessary disenfranchisement of 300,000 voters," it wrote. "That number vastly exceeds the 173,976 voters that were disenfranchised under the 1983 redistricting law, which persuaded the three-judge panel to find a constitutional violation."

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