Redistricting in Wisconsin

Posted: June 23, 2017
Updated: July 18, 2018

Counties Favoring Fair Maps

Every 10 years, after the national Census is taken, states redraw the boundaries for their legislative and Congressional districts.

In Wisconsin, this redrawing of the maps is done by the legislature, and the political party that’s in power at the time – whether Democratic or Republican – has tended to draw maps that are tailor-made for their reelection. If neither party is in control, sometimes a deal can be made, and if not, a judge will intervene and impose a map, as has happened three times in the last forty years.

In 2011, the GOP in Wisconsin swept to power, taking over control of the Assembly, the Senate, and the Governor’s office, and it took the practice of partisan map rigging to new levels.

It also decided to redraw the maps not in public, in the Wisconsin Capitol, but instead in a locked office of the private, pricey law firm across the street, Michael Best & Friedrich.

The media wasn’t allowed in. The public wasn’t allowed in. Democrats weren’t allowed in. Even Republican legislators who were not in leadership had to ask to be let in the locked room, and once they got to see their own redrawn districts, they had to sign an oath of secrecy.

That’s not how the people’s business is supposed to be done.

The Republican leadership hired demographic specialists and computer experts to employ the latest mapping technology to create maps that were more rigged than almost any in modern history. 

The leadership then rammed the maps through the legislature in ten days flat. The bill, 2011 Act 43, was then signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker.

And the new maps did what they were designed to do: They ensured that the Republicans grabbed more seats. For instance, in the first election under the plan, Republicans won 60 out of 99 seats in the Assembly despite losing the aggregate statewide vote.

Several lawsuits were filed but the most significant in terms of challenging final maps on the basis of partisan and racial gerrymandering was Baldus v. Brennan. A panel of three judges declared two Assembly districts in Milwaukee as an unconstitutional violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. After the Legislature and plaintiff could not agree on an amended map, the judges selected maps drawn by the plaintiff, the immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera, over two maps presented by the state Legislature. This resulted in Assembly District 8 becoming a majority-minority district.

Subsequently, a group of Democratic voters sued the state of Wisconsin in federal court in the so-called Whitford case, claiming that their rights had been violated and their voices silenced.

On November 21, 2016, a separate panel of federal judges agreed and tossed the redistricting maps.

By a vote of 2-1, the judges sided with the plaintiffs. In a landmark ruling, they said these maps violated the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights of the Democrats who sued.

“It is clear that the drafters got what they intended to get,” concluded federal judges Barbara Crabb and Kenneth Ripple. (Crabb was appointed by President Carter, and Ripple was appointed by President Reagan.) “There is no question that Act 43 was designed to make it more difficult for Democrats, compared to Republicans, to translate their votes into seats. . . . It secured for Republicans a lasting Assembly majority. It did so by allocating votes among the newly created districts in such a way that, in any likely electoral scenario, the number of Republican seats would not drop below 50%.”

On June 19, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal from Wisconsin’s Attorney General, Brad Schimel. Defending the rigged maps has already cost the state of Wisconsin more than $2 million, and the meter is running. The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case this fall and then hand down its decision by June of 2018.

But as the federal judges noted, the citizens of Wisconsin have been suffering under the burden of voting in highly rigged districts.

This has led to a glaring lack of competitiveness.

About 2.8 million Wisconsin residents – almost half the state’s population – had little or no choice about who represents them in the Assembly or Senate on Election Day 2016. The reason: Only one major party candidate was on the ballot in their Assembly or Senate district. And only 10 of the 99 Assembly seats were anywhere near competitive in 2016.

In turn, this lack of competitiveness leads to hyper-partisanship. When incumbents are in safe districts, they don’t need to listen to those constituents who disagree with them. They can be as dogmatic as they’d like because they won’t pay any price for it. As a result, compromise becomes nearly impossible, and even plain old courtesy goes out the window.

There is an easy solution to this problem, and Iowa has found it. For the past 35 years, career civil servants – and not the leaders of the party in power – have drawn the district maps there, with specific criteria that guard against partisanship and favoritism. It works well there, and it would work well in Wisconsin, too.

Twenty-eight Wisconsin counties passed resolutions demanding such change in 2017. And eight counties had passed such resolutions earlier.

Legislation was again introduced in 2017 by Sen. Dave Hansen and Rep. Don Vruwink (SB13/AB44) to enact this change and adopt the Iowa model for Wisconsin.

Redistricting Reform Petition