Meet the Aussie trying to fix the US electoral system

Australian?? Ruth Greenwood and her husband cut their wedding int he shape of the electoral map of Winsconsin. Greenwood is a legal expert?? leading arguments in North carolina against gerrymandering.
Australian?? Ruth Greenwood and her husband cut their wedding int he shape of the electoral map of Winsconsin. Greenwood is a legal expert?? leading arguments in North carolina against gerrymandering.

New York: An Australian lawyer, who led a successful court case last week that ruled Republicans unconstitutionally gerrymandered North Carolina congressional districts to guarantee their electoral victory, describes the win as evidence of "a huge problem" within the American electoral system.

Ruth Greenwood, a graduate of Sydney University's law school, led legal arguments that three federal judges agreed showed North Carolina's electoral map is rigged in favour of the Republican Party.

"This is democracy," Greenwood who is senior legal counsel for the voting advocacy group Campaign Legal Centre in Chicago, says.

Gerrymandering describes the practice of drawing electoral maps in a way that strings together voters who can give a party the best possible chance at victory.

North Carolina has 13 congressional districts that send representatives to Washington on a map drawn by the Republican-controlled state legislature.

Partisan boundaries defined after the 2010 Census saw North Carolina elect 10 Republican candidates and just three Democrats - even though the state has more registered Democrat voters than registered Republicans, according to figures from the state Board of Elections.

"If you get an election where the vote is 50-50 then we would expect the congressional delegation would be 6-7 or 7-6," say Greenwood, highlighting the imbalance.

"The Republicans didn't feel they needed to hide any partisan intent. They stood up publicly and said we're doing this so [they could] get a 10-3 Republican map and the only reason we're doing that is because we can't get an 11-2 map.

"To his credit, [state] Representative Lewis was very honest in his deposition - he said he thinks the world is a better place when Republicans are in charge so he put through a bill to make sure there are more Republicans elected."

"I think that is not democratic and that is the problem," Greenwood says.

Pending an appeal the North Carolina decision will see a balanced state map for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.

Greenwood, 36, is a keen observer of American politics. After graduating from Sydney University she continued legal studies at Columbia University in New York where she became interested in voting rights while volunteering during the 2008 presidential elections.

"There were signs put up to look like they were from the Board of Elections saying turnout was going to be unprecedented so Republicans vote on Tuesday and Democrats vote on Wednesday," she recalled. "Are you kidding me? This is supposed to be the world's greatest democracy."

Greenwood's passion for the issue was shown when her wedding cake featured an electoral map of Illinois District 4, and was featured in an episode of Last Week Tonight, the satirical TV show hosted by comedian John Oliver.

She has found the US electoral system littered with contentious issues including the infamous electoral college that saw Donald Trump elected president with a minority popular vote. Campaign financing and ethics were also problems, she says.

"People in the US ask me how I know there is a better system out there and I say I come from a country where we do it differently.

"There may be problems in Australia but we managed to get rid of gerrymandering and we use ranked choice - or preferential - voting so we don't get so many political extremists. These are systems that could be implemented in America and hopefully will, one day."

While compulsory voting in the US is unlikely to get traction, Greenwood says the concept could invigorate low turnout in American elections. The issue for many people, she says, is not a will to vote but finding a way to vote among other priorities.

"In America they say that people are choosing not to vote but actually they are choosing to look after kids or choosing to work three different jobs or choosing to do the three million things they have to do before they get to the polls."

Greenwood says her Australian accent has caught judges off guard but used it to good effect.

"One of the judges said, 'You're not from around here are you?'" she recalled.

"No," she responded. She was "from a little more south."

"Being able to help out disenfranchised people in North Carolina is awesome," she added. "But it [also] matters to the world what goes on here."

Greenwood is not the only Australian with a role in gerrymandering cases before the courts in the US.

Professor Simon Jackman, chief executive of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, was called as an expert witness for the North Carolina case. Jackman spent a decade at Stanford University in California and is recognised as an authority on the subject.

This story Meet the Aussie trying to fix the US electoral system first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.