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Rivaling redistricting maps debated at Wisconsin Supreme Court

The court, handling redistricting for the first time in five decades, must now decide which of eight proposed sets of maps best honors the least-change approach it ordered in November.

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday heard nearly six hours of arguments from eight different parties over how the state’s new legislative and congressional voting maps should be drawn, giving a day in court to partisans and interest groups to make claims for their preferred electoral boundaries in the closely watched swing state.

The marathon proceeding in the high court's hearing room in Madison addressed maps outlining Wisconsin’s Assembly and Senate districts and eight congressional districts. Maps were proposed by Democratic Governor Tony Evers, Wisconsin’s five Republican congressmen, the GOP-controlled Wisconsin Legislature, the Wisconsin Senate’s Democratic caucus, a group of mathematicians and data scientists, and activist groups including Black Leaders Organizing for Communities and the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, among others.

Evers vetoed the Legislature’s maps in November, saying they were gerrymandered for Republican advantage. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project gave the vetoed maps an “F” rating, deeming them “very uncompetitive relative to other maps that could have been drawn.”

Maps from a nonpartisan redistricting panel Evers created in 2020 were also a nonstarter last year. Republican lawmakers never seriously entertained using them, as the panel’s findings do not carry the force of law, but some members of the Legislature’s liberal Black and Latino caucuses blasted the panel’s maps for diluting votes from people of color, so they failed in bipartisan fashion.

In August, a petition from conservative nonprofit law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty—which argued for its own voter clients’ maps on Wednesday—asked the state supreme court to settle the dispute over how the new maps are drawn since the current maps are unconstitutionally malapportioned. The court said it would take up the issue a month later, though justices had not done so since 1964.

Differences of approach were apparent between justices in November when a 4-3 order from the court’s conservative majority intimated a hands-off role for justices to only adjust the maps to represent population shifts from the 2020 census data and ensure they pass constitutional and statutory muster, dubbed the “least-change” approach.

Litigants on Wednesday homed in on an array of intertwined issues involved with drawing new maps to represent population shifts. This often boiled down to how to best respect county, town and precinct boundaries, strive for population equality and move as few voters as possible into new districts while honoring requirements in the Voting Rights Act and the Wisconsin and U.S. Constitutions, all in terms of the justices’ approach of least change—though parties disagreed over what the latter term really meant.

Justice Brian Hagedorn—a conservative who has sided with the court’s liberal minority on some high-profile cases—acknowledged the partisan gamesmanship at play, understating that “I take as my operating presumption that everyone here has goals.”

A topic of paramount concern was how to fairly represent minority voters in and around Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and a liberal stronghold. Maps proposed by Evers and the activist groups included a seventh legislative district in the area with majority Black and Latino voters. Doug Poland, an attorney for the activist groups, said such a district is required by the Voting Rights Act, though Taylor Meehan, an attorney for the Legislature, argued the move was unconstitutional.

Justice Patience Roggensack resisted the idea, pointing to some recent successes for Black candidates running in Milwaukee as proof of a lack of electoral discrimination and questioning the activists’ expert’s analysis of a limited number of elections.

“I have real problems with just forgetting about [Black candidates’ success] and looking at some elections your expert took out to support your position,” Roggensack said.

Sam Hirsch, a lawyer who represented mathematicians, statisticians and data scientists from two Wisconsin universities, advocated for his clients’ maps in large part because they are strictly nonpartisan and followed the court’s least-change order to a T.

Adopting his clients’ maps is “the best thing for the state of Wisconsin and the people of Wisconsin and they will forever respect you for that decision,” Hirsch said.

Partisan warfare and litigation over redistricting are commonplace in Wisconsin. The outsized influence of the purple state’s 10 electoral votes can be a linchpin to victory in national elections, as both current President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump well know, and with consequential elections for governor and a U.S. Senate seat coming in the fall, the breakdown of the Badger State’s electoral maps are critically important for partisans at the state and federal level.

The current fight echoes the protracted legal battle over maps drawn by the Legislature’s GOP majority a decade ago, which many Democrats and some nonpartisan watchdogs condemned as an unconstitutional, blatantly partisan ploy to dilute Democratic votes.

A handful of Democratic voters sued over 2011 maps drawn by the GOP legislative majority and approved by then-Republican Governor Scott Walker. A federal panel struck down the maps in 2016 as unconstitutionally gerrymandered, but the U.S. Supreme Court vacated that ruling in 2018 because the plaintiff voters did not prove they had standing.

A renewal of the Wisconsin lawsuit was voluntarily dismissed in June 2019, one day after a split U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case out of North Carolina that the courts should have no role in the political process of redistricting, delivering a serious blow to election-reform advocates.

Voting rights activists asked a federal panel to intervene in the current redistricting dispute in August, as they have in recent decades, but that consolidated action was stayed late last year once the Wisconsin Supreme Court took on the issue and will remain so until at least Jan. 28.

The state high court is expected to rule on Wisconsin's voting maps in the coming weeks.

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