Lawsuit challenges Wisconsin districts after census release

Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, WI
Photo by Logan Rude

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A lawsuit filed Friday asks a federal court to declare Wisconsin’s current congressional and legislative district boundaries unconstitutional and to implement new maps ahead of the “near certain event” that the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic governor can’t reach an agreement.

Democratic elections attorney Marc Elias filed the lawsuit on behalf of six Wisconsin voters. It was submitted in U.S. District Court in Madison less than 24 hours after the U.S. Census Bureau released population numbers that will guide the redistricting process.

The lawsuit alleges that the current maps, drawn by Republicans and enacted by then-Gov. Scott Walker in 2011, are an unconstitutional gerrymander that should not be used as the basis for drawing new lines. It asks the court to prevent the Wisconsin Elections Commission from using the current maps for any future elections and to draw new maps if Gov. Tony Evers and legislators don’t reach a deal.

“There is no reasonable prospect that Wisconsin’s political branches will reach consensus to enact lawful legislative and congressional district plans in time to be used in the upcoming 2022 election,” the lawsuit said.

Evers and Republican legislative leaders did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

While there is time for Evers and the Legislature to act, the lawsuit argues that the federal court should intervene now to set a schedule and be prepared to enacted its own maps “in the near-certain event that the political branches fail timely to do so.”

While the lawsuit is the first to be filed in Wisconsin since the numbers were released, it’s not expected to be the last. However, it does speak to the Democratic strategy of trying to block the drawing of new maps based on the current ones, which liberals tried unsuccessfully in court to get tossed after the previous round of redistricting.

“At the end of the day, we all expect the courts to be drawing maps,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a former state Assembly member, before the lawsuit was filed.

Wisconsin’s population increased by less than 4% over the past decade, and its number of congressional districts did not change, so Republicans are arguing that means relatively minor changes to the current maps are needed.

Armchair map drawers were already putting out possible new lines within hours of the census data’s release on Thursday.

The growth in and around Madison will force those deeply Democratic districts to get smaller, said Joe Handrick, a former Republican lawmaker who worked with Republicans on redistricting in 2011. Population losses in Milwaukee, another Democratic stronghold, will require those districts to grow and push out from the city, he said.

There are 12 districts in between Madison and Milwaukee, the “turbulence zone,” that will see the most dramatic changes, Handrick said. Changes in the rest of the state will be relatively minor by comparison, he said. In those 12 districts, 10 are held by Republicans and just two are Democrats.

Just as those population shifts will affect legislative redistricting, they will also power changes to the congressional districts.

The 2nd Congressional District, home to Madison, gained more than any other, with about 78,000 additional people. The 4th Congressional District, covering Milwaukee, lost about 15,000 people, the only one to decline in Wisconsin. Both are represented by Democrats — Pocan in the Madison area and Gwen Moore in Milwaukee.

Moore’s district will need to gain about 41,000 people due to population losses.

The 8th Congressional District, covering Brown and Outagamie counties, saw the second-highest growth, adding more than 41,000 people. That district is held by Republican Mike Gallagher.

The growth in Pocan’s district likely means he will lose some people to neighboring congressional districts, one held by retiring Democratic Rep. Ron Kind and the other by Republican Rep. Bryan Steil. President Joe Biden won Pocan’s district by 40 points last year.

Pocan said he suspects Republicans will try to counter the addition of Democratic areas to both of those districts by shifting the lines elsewhere to include more GOP-friendly territory, but the options are limited. Former President Donald Trump carried both the 1st and 3rd congressional districts by single digits.

Changes in the other congressional districts where the population largely held steady will be more minor, Pocan said.