Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Redistricting Fight Is One Year Away

So why are Evers and Democrats putting spotlight on it now?

By - Feb 3rd, 2020 12:25 pm
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Tony Evers. Photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Tony Evers. Photo by Emily Hamer / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

All that Capitol noise recently on redistricting –- the every-10-years requirement to redraw districts for state legislative and U.S. House seats –- amounted to spring training or, if you prefer, batting practice on that issue.

Why?

Because there will be no Census data for anyone – Republicans who control the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who must sign into law any redistricting plan passed by the Legislature – to fight over until next year.

The real redistricting game won’t be played until spring 2021, by which time the 2020 Census data will available, and the results of the Nov. 3, 2020 election will have prompted a musical-chairs game of who has more or less political power in the Capitol.

But that didn’t stop the Capitol’s three top Democrats – Evers, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Atty. Gen. Josh Kaul – from throwing some first pitches last week.

As he promised to do in his State of the State speech, Evers signed an order creating a People’s Maps Commission. The order noted that the panel can’t do anything until “after the 2020 Census data is made available.”

“Commission members may not be elected officials, public officials, lobbyists or political party officials,” the order said.

Who can serve on it? “Members from each of Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts, members from communities of interest, and experts in non-partisan redistricting.”

Why is the Commission needed? The legislative district lines Republicans drew in 2011 “are some of the most gerrymandered extreme maps in the U.S…[with] approximately 50 times more voters moved to new districts than was necessary,” according to governor’s order.

Signed into law by then-Republican Gov. Scott Walker, the 2011 maps helped Republicans keep control of the Legislature for a decade. The GOP controls the Assembly by a 63-36 margin.

“When it comes to the integrity of the process and the fairness of the maps, Wisconsin must look to the people, not the politicians, that could assist in drawing maps that are fairly and accurately representing our state,” Evers said.

After the State-of-the-State speech, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald called the governor’s commission “unconstitutional.”

Wrong, Kaul said. “Not only is the public allowed to have input into what our maps look like, but that’s the way our process should work,” he said. “It’s the people of Wisconsin that have the power.”

Anyone with access to 2020 Census data next year, and who is also computer and software savvy enough to superimpose that data over the boundaries of local units of government, can draw up plans dividing the state into 99 Assembly districts, 33 state Senate districts and eight U.S. House districts.

But the difference between the maps drawn by someone in their pajamas on their home computer and the maps the People’s Commission will draft is this: Evers will formally submit the Commission’s plans to the Legislature to consider and, he hopes, enact.

But does the Legislature have to formally consider, or vote on, maps from the People’s Commission or anyone else? No.

In 2011, consultants and staffers for those GOP leaders drew maps in the restricted offices of private law firms, only showed them to Republican legislators who had signed secrecy oaths and billed taxpayers for all those costs.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called the governor’s People’s Commission a “fake, phony, partisan process” and noted the limited role a governor plays in the redistricting process. ”Whatever Gov. Evers wants to do, he has one part in this role to play: he has the ability to sign or veto a map. He doesn’t get to draw them,” Vos said.

Vos also questioned why Evers is spending so much time and political capital “on a process that doesn’t happen” until at least 2021.

If legislators and the governor can’t agree on new U.S. House, state Senate and state Assembly boundaries, judges may ultimately draw them. Again.

Federal judges signed off on the 2011 legislative maps, for example, after only slightly tweaking two City of Milwaukee Assembly districts.

The final 2011 district lines for the eight U.S. House seats were dictated by Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, who is not running again and won’t – officially – be involved in the spring 2021 fight.

So all that Capitol “huffing and puffing,” to use an Evers term, recently over redistricting? Spring training. Batting practice. Dress rehearsal before the play’s opening night.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscotwalters@gmail.com

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