MADISON, Wis. (CN) – Wisconsin’s Democratic governor on Monday fulfilled his promise to create a nonpartisan board to draw new legislative maps following the 2020 census, bringing focus back to an issue that helped define partisan politics in the state and nationwide over the last decade.
Governor Tony Evers’ executive order officially creates The People’s Maps Commission, an impartial board with no partisan affiliation tasked with drawing fair electoral maps to be presented to the Legislature after the census.
Evers said in a statement that “when elected officials are able to ignore their constituents without consequences, and when they can rely on the safety of their seats rather than the quality of their work, something’s wrong, folks.”
“The people should choose their elected officials, not the other way around,” the governor said. “And when it comes to the integrity of the process and the fairness of the maps, Wisconsin must look to the people, not politicians, to assist in drawing maps that fairly and accurately represent our state.”
While Evers’ order cannot force the Republican-controlled Legislature to adopt any maps created by the new commission, its creation throws down the gauntlet from the governor’s office and signals to GOP legislators that Evers plans to make an issue out of the electoral maps going forward.
According to the Wisconsin Constitution, the Legislature has the power to approve new maps every 10 years, drawing new boundaries for the state’s congressional and legislative districts. Maps will next be drawn in 2021 following this year’s census, which begins in April, at which point the governor can sign them into law or veto them.
Monday’s executive order does not alter that process but creates a commission made up of people from each of Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts to travel the state, hold hearings and draw maps as fair as conceivably possible. Elected officials, “public officials,” lobbyists and political party officials are prohibited from serving on the commission.
Drama over electoral maps is nothing new in the Badger State, of course.
Following the 2010 census, GOP legislators sequestered in the Madison office of nationwide law firm Michael Best & Friedrich and used sophisticated technology to draw maps which were roundly considered to favor Republicans.
Lawsuits and rebukes from federal judges came in almost immediately after the maps’ creation, which focused on the lack of transparency and obviously partisan agenda in the map-drawing process.
Evers’ executive order points to these maps as “some of the most gerrymandered, extreme maps in the United States…drafted in secret by private attorneys at taxpayer expense, passed with almost no public input, and resulted in years of litigation, costing taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees.”
The legal fight over Wisconsin’s maps was eventually one of the key cases, along with those from Maryland and North Carolina, to make it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which punted on the suit and left the maps in place.
That suit, originally brought by over a dozen Democratic voters, got sent back to the district court, where it was quickly dismissed by a three-judge panel that found states are free to draw electoral maps however they see fit and the federal courts have no jurisdiction over the process.
That panel featured Judges William Griesbach, Kenneth Ripple and James Peterson. They were appointed by George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, respectively.
Wisconsin Republicans have been quick to dismiss Evers’ commission as political gamesmanship and have shown no signs of budging on the issue.
State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R- Rochester, voiced his skepticism of the redistricting plan shortly after it was announced during the governor’s State of the State address last Wednesday.
“He can form whatever kind of fake, phony, partisan process he wants to create,” Vos said, “but I have no doubt in the end we will do it the way we always have, which is to follow the constitution.”
In a discussion with Wisconsin Eye last Thursday, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke, R- Kaukauna, reiterated that “it’s constitutionally the Legislature’s responsibility to draw the maps.”
Steineke continued that “the idea that redistricting somehow is this massive gerrymandering issue that really puts Democrats at a competitive disadvantage…is quite frankly nonsense.”
An Associated Press analysis of the election results showed that Wisconsin’s districts had one of the largest Republicans tilts in the nation. The “efficiency gap” analysis, which is intended to flag potential cases of gerrymandering, indicated that in 2018 Democrats would have been expected to win at least one additional U.S. House seat and at least 15 additional State Assembly seats based on their average share of the vote in Wisconsin’s districts. That would have been enough to give Democrats control of the State Assembly and an even partisan split in the state’s congressional delegation.
In addition, a January 2019 Marquette University Law School poll that asked about redistricting showed that 72% of respondents supported having a nonpartisan commission draw the maps, with only 18% saying the Legislature should draw them.
Rick Esenberg, founder and president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a group that advocates for conservative issues in the state, questioned Monday whether a truly nonpartisan redistricting commission is even feasible, calling the process inherently partisan.
Esenberg pointed out that the governor himself is a partisan official and that depending on how the commission is selected – Evers’ executive order does not outline the selection process – the commission will be just as partisan as any other system. If the goal is to correct the natural disadvantage Democrats have in obtaining majorities in a system which uses single member geographic districts, due to the relative geographic concentration of their voters as opposed to Republicans, Esenberg posits that itself is a form of partisan gerrymandering.
“Redistricting is inevitably political and partisan,” Esenberg said. “It does little good to try to hide this in an ostensibly ‘nonpartisan’ commission—particularly if that commission is designed and selected by a partisan.”
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, meanwhile, applauded Evers’ executive order Monday, offering that “our state government was designed to empower the people of Wisconsin…and that’s what nonpartisan redistricting does.”
Given the prompt resistance from Wisconsin Republicans, the forecast for any maps drawn by Evers’ commission is bleak. And considering that the state will still likely have a Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic governor in 2021, the inevitable disagreement over the new maps will likely end up left to the courts.
Republicans hold five of Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts and have a 63-36 majority in the State Assembly and a 19-14 majority in the Senate.