- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2016

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin Assembly district boundaries that Republicans drew up five years ago have robbed Democratic-leaning voters of their voices, attorneys argued Friday as they wrapped up a federal trial over whether the lines are constitutional.

Gerald Hebert, an attorney for a group of voters who sued over the boundaries, told the panel that the boundaries represent the worst example of gerrymandering in modern history and punish Democrats and their supporters by diluting their voting strength.

“Their right to vote is fundamental,” Hebert said during closing arguments. “It’s our voice in the government. It’s the only voice many of us have. It’s not right to target people and harm them because of their voting history. What did they do? They had the nerve to participate in the political process and go to the polls.”

Brian Keenan, a state Justice Department lawyer who is defending the boundaries, countered that the districts reflect that Wisconsin has been trending increasingly Republican. Partisanship is to be expected when one party draws legislative boundaries, he said, adding that there’s no way to legally measure partisan gerrymandering.

“This is actually democracy,” Keenan said during his closing. “The Republicans won the 2010 election. The Constitution gives them the right to (draw district lines).”

Legislators redraw Senate and Assembly district boundaries every 10 years to reflect population shifts. The task was one of the first chores Republican lawmakers took on after they seized control of both houses and the governor’s office in November 2010, passing a bill less than a year later that re-shaped the districts.

The voter group filed a lawsuit last summer alleging the Assembly boundaries marginalize Democrats by splitting their supporters across districts and consolidating Republican-leaning voters. Hebert said during closings Friday that the plan reduced the number of swing districts from 19 to 10.

The group has asked a three-judge panel to declare the Assembly districts unconstitutional and redraw them if legislators don’t. Such a ruling could Democrats an opening to make gains in the November election as they try to claw their way back into the majority.

The plaintiffs face an uphill battle, though. The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t been able to come up with a legal standard for deciding when redistricting becomes unconstitutional gerrymandering. Their attorneys spent much of the four-day trial trying to persuade the judges to adopt an equation they’ve proposed for measuring when a party has far exceeded the number of votes its candidate needs to win a district. State attorneys maintain the equation lacks any sort of constitutional basis and there’s no way a court can measure gerrymandering.

Keenan worked Friday to show the districts simply reflect how the state has grown more Republican and that partisan maps don’t guarantee a party victory by calling a pair of political analysts to the stand Friday.

Sean Trende, an elections analyst for the Real Clear Politics website, testified that his research shows more Wisconsin counties, particularly in rural areas, have been trending Republican since 1996. Nicholas Goedert, a LaFayette College political scientist who studies gerrymandering, testified that partisan maps often backfire in wave elections where the opposing party sweeps to victory across the country. Goedert also testified that the plaintiff’s gerrymandering equation is “chaotic” and that using it to definitively state whether gerrymandering occurred based on the results of just one election is “dangerous.”

The plaintiffs tried to show that both analysts were clearly working for Republicans. During cross-examination by Hebert, Trende said he has donated to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as well as four Republican candidates, including John McCain and former President George W. Bush. He also said the state is paying him $300 an hour to testify. Goedert said the state was paying him $175 an hour to testify.

The judges - U.S. District Judges Barbara Crabb and William Griesbach along with 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Kenneth Ripple - aren’t expected to issue a ruling for at least several weeks.

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This story has been updated to correct that Hebert, not Peter Earle, conducted Trende’s cross-examination.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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