Democrat Tony Evers is the first governor in Wisconsin history to include a nonpartisan plan to draw new boundaries for legislative and Congressional districts in his proposed state budget.

That’s major progress in the fight against gerrymandering—the practice in which the party that controls the Legislature draws districts that make sure it keeps control, say two former state senators who spent years pushing for what Evers proposed.

Before 2011, when Republicans drew lines that made sure they stayed in control of the Legislature for 10 years, “nobody ever noticed” how those lines were drawn, said Democrat and former Senate Majority Leader Tim Cullen.

Federal judges ended up drawing new districts after U.S. census counts in 1980, ’90 and 2000—a process that escaped public attention, Cullen added.

Another former Senate majority leader, Republican Dale Schultz, said he and Cullen spent years explaining “reapportionment”—the official term for the process of drawing new districts—across the state.

As a result of educational efforts, and a still-pending lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in challenging the Republican-drawn lines, Wisconsin residents now understand why the changes recommended by Evers are needed, Cullen and Schultz said.

The last Marquette University Law School poll supports that claim: 72 percent of those surveyed favored a nonpartisan redistricting process.

Voters “should get to choose their elected officials—and not the other way around,” Evers said in his budget message to the Legislature.

The process Evers recommended:

  • Creation of a five-member “redistricting advisory commission” that would oversee the Legislative Reference Bureau, which would draft proposed legislative and Congressional district maps.
  • Each of the four legislative leaders would name one panel member; the four would pick the fifth. None could be a registered Wisconsin voter, someone who holds “partisan public office” or anyone who works for or is related to someone who holds public office or works in the Legislature or in Congress.
  • By January 2022, the Legislative Reference Bureau must present a first set of proposed legislative and Congressional district maps, which would be the subject of public hearings and voted on in either the Assembly or Senate within seven days. The maps could not be amended.
  • If the first house of the Legislature approves the first maps, they must get an “expeditious” vote in the other house.
  • If the first set of maps fails to pass one house, leaders of that house must note reasons “why the plan was not approved.”
  • Within three weeks after the vote that killed the first set of maps, the bureau must present a second set, which also must get a vote in one house of the Legislature within seven days. The second set of maps could not be amended.
  • If the second set of maps is also rejected, the bureau must deliver a third set within 21 days and that set must get a vote within seven days. The third set of maps could be amended, but only by a “three-fourths (vote) of all the members elected in each house.”

Cullen said the requirement that any amendment to the third maps be passed by 75 percent of legislators means one party could not force passage of maps stacked in its favor.

That’s an improvement from Iowa’s redistricting process, which doesn’t have the 75 percent requirement, Cullen added.

Iowa has had its legislative and Congressional district lines drawn by a nonpartisan panel, and then adopted by both the Legislature and governor, since 1980.

Iowa’s system is so popular there has not been any attempt to change it, Cullen said.

Cullen said there is only a “slim chance” that Republicans who control Wisconsin’s Legislature will seriously consider the governor’s proposal.

But, Cullen said, even if Republicans kill the nonpartisan redistricting proposal, Evers would veto new maps drawn to keep Republicans in control of the Legislature.

“We will not have gerrymandering in 2021,” Cullen said. The changes Evers wants “would fix the problem permanently,” he added.

A contract between Republican legislators and a law firm released by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says taxpayers could be charged at least $840,000 to defend districts Republicans drew in 2011.

Asked about the governor’s proposal, Vos aide Kit Beyer said: “Like previous budgets, policy items will be removed from the budget proposal—including the governor’s redistricting plan. Speaker Vos favors the current system for redistricting.”

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com.

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