The resolution declares it “the public policy of the state” that electoral maps change as little as possible.
Republican members of the Senate and Assembly on Tuesday approved a joint resolution that seeks to limit how much the 2021 redistricting maps differ from the current 2011 map, essentially locking in the state’s gerrymander.
The release of the 2020 US census data set the stage for the Legislature to pass new electoral maps, which determine boundaries for legislative and congressional districts. In 2011, Republican legislators and Gov. Scott Walker passed maps with oddly shaped districts that ensured Republicans would win as many districts as possible.
The resolution declares it “the public policy of the state” that future redistricting should “retain as much as possible the core of existing districts thus maintaining existing communities of interest.” Because it is a joint resolution, authored by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg), Gov. Tony Evers cannot veto it.
Sachin Chheda, director and cofounder of the Fair Elections Project, said that while the vote sent a clear signal to voters that “the majority party in Wisconsin right now thinks it should protect incumbents” when the fair maps fight inevitably ends up in the courts, he does not think that the resolution will have any weight.
“I don’t think there’s any court that would defer to this joint resolution as having any sort of authority,” Chheda said. “It does not have the force of law. It doesn’t mean anything in that way.”
During a press conference ahead of the vote, Assembly Democratic Minority Leader Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) posited the vote as a choice between listening to the people and consolidating power in the hands of the majority party. Fifty-five counties have passed resolutions supporting fair maps and a 2019 Marquette poll found that 72% of Wisconsinites support a nonpartisan commission redrawing the state’s district boundaries.
“The entire discussion for the last decade has been about dismantling these maps that have distorted our democracy, that have led to dis-alignment between the public’s priorities and what actually happens here in the state,” Hintz said. “The idea that we would endorse the existing maps is the opposite of what elected officials who believe in democracy should be doing.”
Vos in his floor remarks stated that the content of the bill—compliance with state and federal law, maintaining compact, contiguous districts, following natural boundaries and “making sure we have one person to one vote”—is not controversial. He added that the purpose of the bill is to set guidance, particularly for the public, who can submit their version of the maps to DrawYourDistrict.legis.wisconsin.gov.
“It’s also important to say to the public the things that we think are important, the criteria that we will utilize to be able to judge maps as they come in,” Vos said. “The resolution before us is simple. It basically reiterates what current law is, what current constitutional theory is and gives clear guidance to folks who are going to submit maps to us over the next month or two.”
Chheda agreed, saying that under normal circumstances, the joint resolution would be logical, but “the reason it isn’t logical in 2021 in Wisconsin right now, right here, in the real world, is that in 2011, the Republicans rigged the maps.”
Sen Tim Carpenter (D-Milwaukee) on the Senate floor thanked the few Republican Senators who stayed in the chambers to debate the joint resolution with their Democratic colleagues.
“This is going to be the most important debate or decision any of us make while we’re here in this building,” Carpenter said.
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In the Assembly, Democratic Caucus Chair Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) and in the Senate, Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick) put forward amendments that would have turned over the whole redistricting process to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), a move Democrats have proposed in several unsuccessful bills over the years.
Speaking on his amendment, Spreitzer quoted the headline of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report on how Republicans moved millions of Wisconsinites to different districts when they drew the current maps one decade ago.
“This resolution reeks of hypocrisy when compared to what Republicans did a decade ago,” Spreitzer said. “This resolution is just more of the same: trying to cling to power and say anything you can to come up with a justification for doing that.”
Those amendments were voted down by their Republican colleagues. The Senate passed the joint resolution along party lines, 19-12, as did the Assembly, which passed the measure in a 60-38 vote.
On Monday, Chheda, fair maps advocates, and constituents met with legislators to push them to vote down the joint resolution, and instead either take up a bill that would hand over the process to the LRB, or take up the maps the People’s Maps Commission plans to release on Thursday.
Fair Maps organizer Carlene Bechen said it was a months-long process of finding constituents for each legislator then contacting and scheduling conversations with legislators and their staff. The only Democratic legislator who could not make it or have a member of their staff present on Monday was Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D-Bayfield) because she was in charge of caucus that day.
In the Assembly, 40 Republican representatives, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) did not respond. Some stated they would not attend because Fair Maps was holding the meetings virtually due to the pandemic, and some legislators said they would only meet in-person.
“It is extremely disappointing and it is one more example of how our legislators don’t feel they have to represent us as their constituents,” Bechen said. “The fact that we tried for weeks to make appointments and had little or no response, it’s an obfuscation.”
The response rate in the Senate was significantly higher, where nine out of 21 Senators either attended the meeting or sent their staff in their place, including Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg). One notable no-show was Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield).
But what bothered Bechen even more was that some Republicans cosigned the legislation that would have the LRB do the redistricting, yet they said nothing about the bill or about the fair maps movement during Tuesday’s debate.
“It’s a major gut punch,” Bechen said. “Those people had the opportunity to stand up for nonpartisan redistricting yesterday and they didn’t take it. It feels like it’s signing on in name only. It is not reflected in their actions.”