The year 2020 will be remembered for the closing of schools and businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic; postponements of weddings, parades, and community festivals; mandatory mask-wearing; and—most sadly—restrictions on hospital visits and funerals.
The year 2020 was also the year of the United States census. Every 10 years, the Census Bureau conducts a head count of our country’s population. The census has been done every 10 years since 1790, making the 2020 census the 24th official count in United States history.
The census is needed for many reasons, such as making sure that every state, city, village and town receives its fair share of taxpayer dollars. I hope that you were able to fill out the census questionnaire for your household.
All of us hope the pandemic curve will flatten in 2021. The year 2021 is also the year the data from the census will be turned into action. Wisconsin will use the information from the census to take up the process of redistricting, which means adjusting Congressional and Legislative maps to reflect changes in population.
Congress has fixed the total number of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives at 435. Since 2000, Wisconsin has been apportioned eight of those 435, and this is not expected to change in 2021.
In our state’s history, the most seats apportioned to Wisconsin was 11, which lasted from 1900 to 1930. Since then, Wisconsin has lost three seats: One in 1930, one in 1970, and one in 2000, leaving us with our current number of eight members in the U.S. House of Representatives. Every state is allotted two U.S. senators.
Congress must give states the census data by March 21, and it must include information not only with respect to the number of people residing in various geographical regions in the state but also with respect to the age, race and ethnicity. Wisconsin, like all states, must then comply with two federal requirements: drawing Congressional and Legislative districts that balance the population in each district as equally as possible without discriminating against minority populations.
The Wisconsin Constitution requires the Legislature to take up redistricting during the first legislative session after receiving the federal census numbers. However, if the partisan primary and general election in 2022 are to be held based on new maps, Congressional and Legislative redistricting must be completed in time for nomination papers to be filed no later than June 1, 2022, otherwise the primary and general election will be held under existing maps.
This happened with redistricting after the 1960 census, when we didn’t get new maps until 1964, and then, for the first time in Wisconsin, they were drawn by the courts.
By filling out your 2020 census form, you became part of our democratic process. Now it becomes the job of the state Assembly and state Senate to approve new district lines for the 2022 election.
The questions before us are: Should those maps be drawn in secret by partisan, highly-paid lawyers or should they be drawn in an open, transparent process by a non-partisan commission? What would be better for Wisconsin, maps drawn by people who want to make districts competitive between the parties or maps drawn by lawyers to make seats safe for the incumbents?
Or will the courts once again have to settle the questions?
My bet is that with a Republican-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor, the courts will be busy.