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Politics & Government

May 2016: Trial Begins Over Wisconsin GOP Redistricting Method

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Wisconsin state Legislature
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Wisconsin's redistricting law goes on trial Tuesday in federal court in Madison

A federal trial begins Tuesday in Madison over the way state Republicans redrew Wisconsin’s political boundaries in 2011. 

A dozen Wisconsin residents who vote for Democrats are suing the state. They argue the boundaries are unconstitutional because they heavily favor Republicans.

States are allowed to redraw their political boundaries at the start of each decade, following the U.S. Census. In Wisconsin, in past decades, the courts ended up drawing the Legislative and Congressional lines because state government was split between the GOP and Democrats.

But in 2011, Republicans had just taken control of the Legislature and the governor’s office, so they were able to solely redraw the districts. Democrats cried foul. After the majority party approved the maps, then Assemblyman Mark Pocan called the process a “partisan overreach.” He told Wisconsin Eye the GOP rushed the maps through the Legislature, just in time to protect the Republican state Senators who were facing a recall that summer.

“There’s a recall election on August 9 and they think they’re going to lose the state Senate, so they hurry up, did these maps, paid partisan attorneys, something that’s never been done before, spent $395 an hour to hire attorneys to gerrymander lines,” Pocan says.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos insisted Republicans drew the maps fairly, based on population shifts.

“We are creating a second Hispanic district. We are creating an open African-American district, so two minority districts, meeting the criteria of the federal government. These are clear and compact districts,” Vos says.

Gov. Walker signed the redistricting bill into law in August of 2011. Several groups challenged the map in 2012, insisting it violated the rights of Latinos on Milwaukee’s south side – by dividing them into two Assembly districts. A panel of federal judges agreed that the map diluted the Latino vote and ordered the state to create one majority Latino district. The judges also criticized Republicans for largely conducting the redistricting process in secret.

This time, the plaintiffs argue the entire state map is unconstitutional, because of election results from 2012 and 2014. For instance, in 2012, more Democrats voted in Wisconsin’s Assembly races than Republicans, yet the GOP overwhelmingly captured the Assembly 60 seats to 39.

Another set of numbers the plaintiffs are presenting is called the efficiency gap. It calculates how many votes don’t really count in elections because districts are dominated by one party. So the plaintiffs are going to court with two sets of numbers.

The plaintiffs are hoping that the case goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. They say the court has been waiting for a case with numbers - to determine how much gerrymandering should be allowable, and this might be the case.

Supporters of Wisconsin’s boundaries point out that the judges who considered the challenge involving the Latino districts – didn’t point to any other violations of the Voting Rights Act.

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