Maps, districts, and Wisconsin’s political future: A redistricting primer

MADISON, Wis. — When Gov. Tony Evers “People’s Map’s Commission” opened an online portal for Wisconsinites to submit their ideas for the state’s next redistricting plan, Middleton resident Bill Taylor began conceptualizing a plan.

Taylor was one of nearly 2,000 that stepped up to the challenge of providing public input, in hopes of seeing the state implement a fair map for its state legislature and Congressional seats.

“I think about those sorts of things, and it’s just irritated me over the years, 10 years ago it was awful, and it just shouldn’t be.”

Governing Wisconsin’s future for at least a decade to come, the current map cycle is likely to end up in the courts amid divided state leadership.

State Republicans have now released a set of maps that would keep Wisconsin’s state and Congressional districts much the same as the past ten years, while maps released by Gov. Evers’ Peoples Map Commission would make some areas more competitive for both parties.

As a vote on the Republicans’ maps nears a full legislative session where they are expected to pass and Gov. Evers will likely veto, it’s worth taking a step back to see how Wisconsin got here–and where the state goes from here.

The politics of redistricting

Every 10 years after the U.S. census, the Wisconsin state legislature is tasked with a complex and oftentimes controversial responsibility: Drawing new district lines for both the state’s congressional and legislative districts. While local government officials oversee the map drawing process for city and county government lines, state lawmakers draw maps to determine the state’s 99 Assembly seats, 33 Senate seats and eight congressional districts.

The redistricting process was designed with the intention of using the most recent U.S. Census data as a basis for district map drawing. But that doesn’t always happen, according to David Canon, a UW-Madison political science professor and expert in redistricting.

“It has to do with majority party control,” Canon said. “So whichever party is in control of redistricting, if they control both the legislature and the governorship, they will draw those lines to help their party.”

This is a concept known as “partisan gerrymandering,” meaning that the party with majority control can manipulate the map drawing process in order to give their particular party a political advantage. This can determine how elections will play out over the next 10 years in which the maps are effective.

Because the Republican party was in control of both the governorship and the legislature in the previous redistricting cycle, they were able to draw districts in their favor for the 2011 redistricting process.

“The Republicans ended up gaining a huge partisan advantage in the state legislature because they were able to draw the district lines without any input from the Democratic Party,” Canon said. “And so that gave us a state legislature that skewed much more in the Republican direction than would have been true had the maps been drawn more evenly.”

Yet, Canon says gerrymandering is a double-edged sword—the issue is not unique to just one political party.

“Partisan gerrymandering is not a Republican or Democratic issue, both parties do it,” Canon said. “Here in Wisconsin, the Republicans were in charge last time, so they redrew the lines to help their party. But Democrats have done this in other states when they have unified control.”

The current battle

This redistricting cycle, party control has shifted. While Republicans remain the controlling party in the state legislature, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has the power to veto any maps the Republicans submit.

It’s expected that the two parties will not be able to come to an agreement on a map, which could ultimately leave the redistricting process up to the federal courts. This situation is not uncommon in a divided government, according to Canon.

“When you look at the last 50 years of redistricting in Wisconsin, only once did the state legislature actually draw the maps, that was this last time.” Canon said. “In the previous four cycles, state government was divided, so neither party had complete control of the state legislature and the governorship, therefore they couldn’t agree on the maps and they ended up in the courts.”

The impending decision has provoked a series of partisan-driven lawsuits in both federal and state courts: Two lawsuits were filed by Democrats in the federal courts and one by Republicans in the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Though the Republicans initially aimed for the litigation to occur in the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court, a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court ruled to keep the case in the federal courts, while also combining the two lawsuits filed by Democrats. The ruling additionally grants permission to Evers and Wisconsin’s five Republican congressmen to intervene in the case.

Both Democratic lawsuits argue that Wisconsin’s current congressional and legislative district boundaries are unconstitutional and should not be used as a basis for new maps if Evers and the legislature cannot make a deal. Instead, they argue the federal courts should draw new maps. The first lawsuit was filed by Democratic attorney Marc Elias on behalf of six Wisconsin voters, while the second was brought by three liberal advocacy groups: Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), Voces de la Frontera (VDLF) and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin (LWVWI), in addition to three individual voters.

“We have one party control in the state legislature that is unaccountable for a diverse community in our state, and that’s harmful,” Christine Neumann-Ortiz, Executive Director of VDLF said. “So our hope is that we now have an ability to check that power, and we want to make sure that everyone in the community participates in this process to ensure that we have the will of the people reflected in our state legislature.”

The Republican lawsuit, brought by the nonprofit Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), seeks to give Evers and the legislature time to come to an agreement on the maps. However, if they cannot make a decision, the lawsuit asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to draw maps with as few changes as possible.

Anthony LoCoco, deputy counsel at WILL, said the motive behind potentially keeping the maps intact is largely driven by a desire to keep policies consistent.

“There are really three main reasons for this: The first is that it’s consistent with past precedent, it’s what’s been done before,” LoCoco said. “It creates the least political perturbation among the current political balance in the state. And third, that principle is really reflected in a number of the traditional redistricting criteria, such as continuity and continuing communities of interest.”

According to Canon, the current maps violate the “one person, one vote” standard—a concept likely to be debated in the litigation. “One person, one vote” refers to equality of populations in voting districts under the equal protection clause.

“I think it’s pretty clear that the maps cannot stand as they are right now,” Canon said. “They will be redrawn for the 2022 midterms because our state constitution requires that the maps be redrawn every 10 years when we get the new census numbers. Right now, just on the basis of equal population, our districts are in violation of the “one person, one vote” equal population requirement that the U.S. Supreme Court and state supreme courts around the country have been very consistent about enforcing since the 1960s.”

The legal battle between parties may continue up until the 2022 midterm elections, when new maps must be in place.

A non-partisan approach

In an attempt to address the issue of partisan gerrymandering, at least fifteen states across the country have instituted nonpartisan committees to oversee the redistricting process, with Wisconsin now added to the list.

After Wisconsin Democrats spent years urging the state to develop their own nonpartisan redistricting committee, Evers instituted the People’s Maps Commission in April 2021.

The People’s Maps Commission is composed of experts in nonpartisan redistricting, members from “communities of interest” and residents of each of the state’s eight congressional districts. It is mandated that no elected officials, public officials, lobbyists or political party officials can serve as members of the commission.

The commission also allows Wisconsin residents to submit their own ideas for maps and redistricting plans through an online portal.

“It’s a wonderful tool,” LWVWI Executive Director Debra Cronmiller said. “We’ve been teaching people how to draw maps for months now because we think it’s so important that the folks who are in the position to draw maps understand from the people of Wisconsin which communities should be together.”

On the other hand, Common Sense Wisconsin Executive Director and prominent Republican Joe Handrick shared an alternative view of the commission. Handrick, who helped draw Wisconsin’s map in the previous cycle, says that redistricting commissions cannot be nonpartisan because they are appointed by partisan officials.

“There really is no such thing as a non-partisan body because it’s partisan people that appoint the members of those commissions.”

Handrick explained that while objectivity is important in this situation, redistricting is ultimately partisan-run.

“The constitution does put redistricting in the hands of the legislature and then of course the governor has to sign it, ” Handrick said. “So by its very design, redistricting, whether good or bad, is a partisan process.”

Local initiatives

Some Wisconsin counties have also instituted commissions with map submission portals to aid in the local redistricting process, including Dane County.

“The basic idea is that citizens should be drawing their own maps, and politicians shouldn’t be drawing their own districts,” Dane County clerk Scott McDonnell said. “At the county level, it’s a little easier to wrap your arms around drawing county-wide maps as opposed to statewide.”

Just two weeks after Dane County announced that residents could submit their own proposals to the commission, 36 maps had been submitted to the website.

While the People’s Map Commission will use submitted maps for general input and ideas, the Dane County commissioners will choose one of the submitted maps as the official redistricting plan, according to McDonnell.

Mcdonnell says submitting a map will allow residents to enact the changes they want to see in their area.

“People should take a look and try to draw their own map,” McDonnell said. “It’ll be fun and certainly it’s a public service.”

Why it matters

For Taylor, the redistricting issue boils down to one principle: fairness.

“I thought it was important to have a map that was fair. And also minimize splitting districts, or minimize splitting cities, or counties, or towns and so forth. And the way to be fair was to have the people vote on what map they would like.”

Cronmiller expressed a similar sentiment, emphasizing that fairness can only be achieved without partisan gerrymandering.

“It’s in our best interest—and of course the best interest of the voters—to promote fair districts in every state, including in Wisconsin. Our democracy is based on “one person, one vote.” When we gerrymander the district lines on partisan grounds we dilute the impact of any single vote, and in fact marginalize many voters, either republicans or democrats (depending on how the district has been created) using that partisan information.”

Regardless of party affiliation, redistricting affects both sides of the debate, according to Canon.

“This is not an issue that should polarize people, ” Canon said. “This is an issue that everyone should be able to agree on. We want fair maps that give voters a chance to pick their leaders, and not have a process where politicians get to pick their voters.”