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Wisconsin's 2021 redistricting process reveals ideological divides between politicians and voters

Madison, Wisconsin, USA state capitol building at dusk.
Stock Adobe
Madison, Wisconsin, USA state capitol building at dusk.

It’s that time of the decade once again: redistricting season is upon us. The Republican legislature just passed a new set of district maps that are drawn to further their partisan advantage. Governor Evers says he’ll veto the maps, and it’s likely this process will play out in court.

Wisconsin’s current legislative maps are heavily gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, but the issue of gerrymandering goes far beyond partisan power. Since gerrymandering essentially guarantees a given district will vote for either a Republican or a Democrat, political leaders can ignore much of what voters want and still be voted in.

"Under the maps Republicans are proposing, which are similar to the ones that got now, you could have a 50/50 race at the top of the ticket, very evenly matched statewide race-and the Republicans would hold in that scenario, nearly 60%, or maybe even as much as 60% of the lower chamber in the legislature," says Patrick Marley, a reporter covering state government and politics for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Where those lines are drawn can have a big effect on the outcome of elections. In 2011, Republican controlled legislature drew up lines that helped them and passed the maps that Wisconsin has now. Since Governor Evers said he'll veto those maps, they'll go right to court to see how they get handled next.

Republicans defend these new maps by saying they should be as close to the current maps as possible.Democrats reject Republicans' defense, as during the last redistricting process Republicans moved voters into many different, new districts in order to gerrymander the maps in favor of the GOP.

Marley says the public has consistently said they believe redistricting should be done by a third party, nonpartisan group. Referenda have found that both Republican and Democratic voters support removing politicians from the redistricting process. Recently Republicans held a public hearing on their maps, in which not one member of the public spoke in favor of them.

"[Voters] want to see some kind of neutral body draw maps, that’s been pretty consistent in polling, that you’ve seen large numbers who don’t think politicians should draw the maps. And that’s true among Democratic voters and Republican voters," says Marley.

Compared to the maps drawn by the legislature, Governor Evers independent commission maps are more competitive. But they've drawn criticism from both sides of the isle. Marley says that despite the fact the commission drawn maps still favor the GOP — to a lesser degree than those drawn by the legislature — Republicans are arguing the commission isn't truly non-partisan. Some Democrats have argued the commission's maps would have far fewer districts with outright majority of black voters and hispanic voters.

The next step in this process is for theses maps to go up to the state supreme courts, since there have been lawsuits filed in both federal courts and state courts. A series of court rulings could happen in this case, but the state has to come up for resolution by spring 2022 because of the election in the fall. Getting on the ballot requires signatures from voters, so understanding who those voters are going to be is necessary.

"If they don't have maps, by then you get the possibility that courts would have to change the dates for filing paperwork or even dates of elections. I don't see anything like that happening. But in an extreme circumstance, if there were major judicial impasse, you could have that happen," says Marley.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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