How New Census Data Changes the Fight Over Gerrymandering in Wisconsin

How New Census Data Changes the Fight Over Gerrymandering in Wisconsin


By Pat Kreitlow

August 16, 2021

Group files lawsuit seeking to ensure Wisconsin’s gerrymandered maps of the past decade aren’t used as the base for new lines.

It’s a nationwide data dump that has excited amateur cartographers, professional politicians, and no shortage of lawyers—as the hyperlocal readings from the 2020 US census were released Thursday, marking the official start of redrawing political boundaries for Congress and state legislators.

One group wasted no time in using the occasion to file a lawsuit seeking to ensure the Republican-written maps used in Wisconsin for the past decade cannot be used as a basis for what comes next.

Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic lawyer who also is leading the party’s legal fight against new voting restrictions, filed the lawsuit Friday in US District Court in Madison on behalf of six Wisconsin voters. The suit asks the court to throw out the state’s current congressional and legislative district boundaries, arguing the 10-year-old maps are unconstitutional and shouldn’t be used as the starting point for new districts set to be drawn in the coming months from the data released Thursday.

The lawsuit asks the court 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 of the battle over redistricting.

Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, a statewide advocacy group for redistricting reform, agrees there is little chance courts won’t become involved, even though Gov. Tony Evers has set up a commission designed to accept public input on drawing maps with as little partisan consideration as possible and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) launched a website Thursday to accept public input as well.

RELATED: Wisconsin Supreme Court Denies GOP Attempt to Bypass Federal Courts In Gerrymandering Lawsuits

“The governor has put forward this People’s Maps Commission, but at the end of the day the politicians who were elected under our currently rigged maps are the ones who decide what the next round of maps are going to be,” Chheda said. “Although obviously, the governor can veto them and then it would probably go to the courts.”

Chheda takes issue with those who claim gerrymandering—the redrawing of maps to give an unfair advantage to one political party—is something “both sides” have done in the state. He notes that both parties agreed on a fair map in 1971, the first time the principle of one-person-one-vote was applied to redistricting through a 1964 US Supreme Court ruling.

“In 1981, 1991, and 2001, they couldn’t agree and courts drew a fair map,” said Chheda. “So, the only time in modern Wisconsin history that one party has drawn the maps and rigged them is when the Republicans did it in 2011.”

While acknowledging that both parties have engaged in gerrymandering in other states, Chheda said that doesn’t mean Wisconsin voters have to accept a hyperpartisan process.

“We should not accept this kind of manipulation and rigging of our political system,” Chheda said, “because we want a political system that is responsive to the will of the voters.” 

Chheda said the census data is critical because it provides information down to the block level, rather than county and state population and demographic numbers. And with multiple online tools available, anyone with interest can examine the numbers and design maps they feel best represent their communities or the entire state. 

Vos has frequently criticized Gov. Evers’ independent commission and said the Legislature alone should redraw the maps, but Chheda said Vos’ new website shows that he knows Republicans are being more closely watched than in 2011, when maps were drawn secretly in private attorneys’ offices and GOP legislators were forced to sign pledges of secrecy about the process after being told to “ignore the public comments.”

Wisconsin’s population increased by less than 4% over the past decade, and its number of congressional districts did not change. 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—Mark 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 level of 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.

District lines for the Legislature’s 33 Senate seats and 99 Assembly seats will also be redrawn to account for population shifts. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 


  • Pat Kreitlow

    The Founding Editor of UpNorthNews, Pat was a familiar presence on radio and TV stations in western Wisconsin before serving in the state Legislature. After a brief stint living in the Caribbean, Pat and wife returned to Chippewa Falls to be closer to their growing group of grandchildren. He now serves as UNN's chief political correspondent and host of UpNorthNews Radio, airing weekday mornings 6 a.m.-8 a.m on the Civic Media radio network and the UpNorthNews Facebook page.

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