A commission charged with redrawing Wisconsin’s legislative districts in a nonpartisan way held the latest in a series of online meetings Thursday night.
The commission heard complaints about the shape of current districts but has no power to change them.
Wisconsin’s Constitution requires the Legislature to draw new legislative districts—for the U.S. House of Representatives and for state Assembly and Senate—after each census. The maps are subject to a governor’s veto. This year, Republicans control the Legislature while the governor is a Democrat, leading most observers to expect a deadlock that will be resolved in the courts.
Gov. Tony Evers established the People’s Maps Commission, saying he wanted a nonpartisan body to generate more competitive legislative districts than the ones currently in place.
Republican leaders have said they will draw the maps this year without the commission’s input.
The Gazette asked for comment from the Republican Party of Wisconsin, and its executive director, Mark Jefferson, sent a statement:
“This is a partisan, self-serving exercise by mostly Democrats. They’re trying to fool Wisconsinites into thinking they are part of a neutral, nonpartisan commission while actually trying to draw maps in their party’s favor. Funny how Democrats became a lot more interested in changing the redistricting process when they lost control of the legislature.”
Thursday’s session focused on the 1st Congressional District and the state-level districts within it, although people from outside the district were allowed to speak.
The speakers seemed to agree that the extreme gerrymandering of Wisconsin’s legislative districts in 2011, enacted by a Republican Legislature and Republican Gov. Scott Walker, was a disservice to the people.
Anita Loch noted that Democrats garnered more than half the votes cast in 2018 but won only 36 seats in the 99-member state Assembly.
Loch and several other speakers argued that gerrymandering ensures most elected officials can keep their seats over many elections, which leads to lack of action on key issues such as health care, school funding and COVID-19.
Steven Doelder told the commission that gerrymandering has split conservative Walworth County among six different Assembly representatives. It once had two Assembly districts.
Some towns are split into three Assembly districts, Doelder said.
“I hope we can return to some sensibility, and I think we will get that if we have independent people drawing the maps,” Doelder said.
Racine County Board member Nick Demske took both parties to task, noting that while the Republicans gerrymandered the state in 2011, the Democrats controlled the lawmaking process in 2009-10 and failed to make it happen.
“Both major parties failed us,” Demske said, resulting in a perversion of the political process, a mockery of democracy and “endless terrible outcomes,” on issues such as housing insecurity, and political and racial justice.
Another speaker was former Democratic state Sen. John Lehman of Racine, who represented a district that shifted from Democrat to Republican each election over many years.
“Wisconsin is a purple state,” Lehman said. “We need to do everything in the guidance that you give or the work that you do to keep it as competitive as possible.”
Some commentators have suggested the commission’s work could influence public opinion as well as the courts that will resolve the expected redistricting deadlock.
State Revenue Secretary Peter Barca, who represented the 1st Congressional District for one term from 1993-95, was invited to speak, and a commission member asked for his political advice. He said to expect surprises.
Barcasaid his biggest fear is that Republicans will try to cut Evers out of the process and go to the state Supreme Court to uphold their maps. The majority of the justices were supported by conservatives in their election bids.
Another Republican tactic could be to try to make their maps look “less ridiculous” while maintaining an advantage, Barca said.
Barca also speculated that the gerrymandered districts could lead to third parties, such as the Greens or Libertarians, gaining a foothold in the state Legislature.
Fifty-five of the state’s 72 counties have passed referendums or county board resolutions endorsing a change in the redistricting process, according to the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign.
The Walworth and Green county boards were among those that passed resolutions endorsing nonpartisan redistricting. Eighty percent of Rock County voters agreed in a referendum last April that the state should create a nonpartisan procedure for mapping legislative and congressional districts.