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Voters ask federal court to intervene in Wisconsin redistricting

After Wisconsin’s last redistricting process became a messy legal fight, six voters want a panel to strike down the current legislative and congressional maps and implement new ones, anticipating another partisan stalemate over redistricting before 2022 elections.

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — A group of Wisconsin voters asked a federal court on Friday to prepare to intervene in the state’s plans to draw new legislative and congressional maps, anticipating what is almost certain to be a legal battle over redistricting in the coming months.

Wasting no time after the release of the 2020 census data on Thursday, a complaint from six Wisconsin voters filed in Madison federal court renews the charge that the state’s current maps are illegally gerrymandered and makes clear the plaintiffs have no confidence in the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature and Democratic Governor Tony Evers to reach a consensus on new maps that are fair and constitutional.

Calling the current maps “unconstitutionally malapportioned,” the voters are asking the court to assemble a three-judge panel to declare the current district plans unconstitutional, block their use for any future elections and draw new maps that ensure a one-person, one-vote standard, something that is normally the Legislature's job.

Wisconsin law holds that the Legislature is tasked with using census data to enact legislative and congressional district plans, then send them to the governor for approval. The governor can veto the maps, but both legislative chambers can override his veto with a two-thirds majority vote.

However, Friday’s filing argues recent history shows that process has little chance of success, as Wisconsin’s controversial maps drawn by a GOP majority in 2011 and approved by former Republican Governor Scott Walker were condemned by Democrats as blatantly unfair and unconstitutional, resulting in litigation that dragged on for years.

Although a federal panel struck down the 2011 maps in 2016 as unconstitutionally gerrymandered and designed to intentionally dilute Democratic votes, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated that ruling in 2018 because the plaintiff voters did not prove they had standing.

The Wisconsin lawsuit was subsequently renewed in Madison federal court before being voluntarily dismissed in June 2019, which occurred 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.

Evers and the GOP-controlled Legislature have locked horns almost constantly since the governor defeated Walker and took office in January 2019, and Friday’s lawsuit finds the chances of agreement between them on new voting maps in the key battleground state vanishingly remote.

The governor created a nonpartisan board of people from each of Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts to draw unbiased maps last year, but GOP lawmakers quickly dismissed the idea as political gamesmanship and have stated they intend to draw the maps themselves, as the board’s conclusions would not carry the force of law.

“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,” according to Friday’s complaint. “In the last four decades, each time Wisconsin’s political branches were split along partisan lines, federal judicial intervention was necessary to implement new state legislative plans.”

Even though there is technically time for Evers and the Legislature to work it out, the voters want the court to “assume jurisdiction now and establish a schedule that will enable the court to adopt its own plans in the near-certain event that the political branches fail timely to do so.”

The voters from Dane, Waukesha and Shawano counties are represented by attorneys from both the Washington and Madison offices of nationwide firm Perkins Coie.

The six members of the Wisconsin Elections Commission were named as defendants in the case. A representative with the commission declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday.

Wisconsin has multiple consequential elections coming in 2022, including a reelection bid for Evers, a race for Republican U.S. Senator Ron Johnson’s seat and a contest to fill a congressional district comprising much of western Wisconsin currently held by Congressman Ron Kind, a 13-term Democrat who announced earlier this week he will not seek reelection. Johnson has not yet publicly announced if he will run for a third term.

Friday’s complaint is not the first filed this year anticipating the new Wisconsin maps’ influence on upcoming elections and seeking advantage in court battles over how they are drawn.

Legislative Republicans were sued by four voters in March after they entered contracts with two law firms—Madison-based Bell Giftos St. John and Consovoy McCarthy, a boutique firm based in Boston and Washington that has represented the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump—that agreed to pay the firms a combined $1 million or more to prepare for litigation over redistricting before any lawsuits had been filed.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Ehlke voided those contracts in April, but a split Wisconsin Supreme Court temporarily stayed that decision over the summer, with three liberal justices objecting to the court’s four conservatives’ finding that lawmakers had a possibility of success on the merits and would face irreparable harm if the contracts remained voided. Arguments in that lawsuit are expected in the high court this fall.

A representative for Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, declined to comment on Friday's lawsuit. The office of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, could not immediately be reached.

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