In December, the Supreme Court will hear “one of the most significant election law cases… well, ever,” according to the nonpartisan law and policy institute, The Brennan Center for Justice. The issue? Independent state legislature theory.
If you don’t know the in’s and out’s of the case, you’re not alone. Thousands are turning to Wikipedia to understand just what this case might mean for the future of United States elections. Before July though, people wouldn’t have found much. But thanks to Aaron Franklin, a third-year J.D. student at Stanford Law, there’s an entire Wikipedia article on the subject.
What is “independent state legislature theory” and why is it such a big deal?
Independent state legislature theory (ISL) asserts that state lawmakers should have authority to draw congressional maps and regulate federal elections without fearing the same degree of oversight or second-guessing from state supreme courts. North Carolina Republican state lawmakers in favor of adopting this theory have based their Supreme Court court filing on a disputed clause that Charles Pinckney purportedly presented in the Constitutional Convention of 1787. As NPR noted, if the Supreme Court adopts the theory, “a once-fringe legal theory could reshape federal elections.” Independent state legislature theory could overturn voting reforms and hundreds of state constitutional provisions, as well as threaten the security of registration records, disrupt mail voting processes, and impact thousands of federal election policies.
What is Wikipedia’s role in this political conversation?
Aaron created the Wikipedia article about the subject as part of Heather Joy and Katherine Ott‘s Advanced Legal Research course at Stanford Law last spring. Throughout the term, students were to create an original Wikipedia article, or edit an existing one, on a particular legal topic as part of Wiki Education’s Wikipedia Student Program. Aaron understood that Wikipedia has strict rules about illustrating concepts in a neutral, non-political tone. And so far he had only observed passionate and contentious conversation about the subject in the news.
“One of the reasons that I was interested in writing the article was because I found it difficult to find an unbiased discussion of the theory that wasn’t interested in either advocating for or critiquing its justifications,” Aaron says. “It was especially important for me to accurately represent the textualist and originalist logic behind the independent state legislature theory in a way that adhered to Wikipedia’s neutrality principles. I hope readers will come away with a better understanding of exactly how ISL purports to interpret our constitution, which will hopefully allow them to develop their own sense of whether that interpretation is plausible or not.”
The Wikipedia assignment is unique in that it allows students to practice concise, neutral, and well-sourced writing on a world stage. In the case of this particular article, Aaron is already informing thousands of people with his coursework. The same reach can’t often be said for a research paper.
“I think writing and revising a Wikipedia article is a great assignment because it allows the general public to benefit from work you’d otherwise be producing for an audience of one or two people,” Aaron says. “And when your schoolwork is put on display for all to see, it adds an extra incentive to do well.”
As an aspiring lawyer, Aaron says he won’t often be tasked with producing this kind of unbiased writing in the future. “But I will be tasked with breaking down complex subject matter and writing coherently about it for an audience that may have had no previous exposure to the subject. Writing this article definitely helped me further develop this skill.”
By becoming an editor of Wikipedia, Aaron has joined a worldwide network of volunteers who devote their time to creating and updating the greatest repository of free knowledge of all time.
“In some ways, publishing this article and watching it being edited by others brought to mind the Ship of Theseus,” Aaron says. “Eventually, there might not be a single line in the article that was actually something I wrote, but I’ll probably still feel a sense of pride and ownership over it. People shouldn’t be worried about publishing an article for all to see and edit. Even if the article ends up looking completely different from the one that you originally published, the work that you put in to create that initial version is invaluable to those editors that come along later.”
In this tangential and neutral way, Aaron is participating in an important discussion–one that isn’t just confined to Wikipedia–that will shape democracy in the United States. As midterm election polls open, changes in governance is on the mind of every voter across the country.
“ISL has a lot of implications for state rules governing redistricting and regulating federal elections generally,” Aaron says. “While it may be unlikely that the outcome of the 2022 midterm elections will be directly affected by the rise of sympathy for ISL, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Moore v. Harper during its 2022-2023 term. The decision in that case may make ISL the law of the land. Generally speaking, I believe it is important for citizens of a state to know who holds political power in that state and when/how that power changes hands–I believe that having this article on Wikipedia will aid precisely this kind of understanding.”
To learn more about incorporating an assignment like this into higher education courses, visit teach.wikiedu.org for our free assignment templates, dashboard, and support.