A panel of federal judges ruled Wisconsin Republicans’ 2011 state Assembly redistricting plans “unconstitutionally gerrymandered” to expand their majority and not representative of legitimate state interests Monday.
A 2-1 majority of judges issued the decision, which state Attorney General Brad Schimel said he will appeal, concluding that the way Republican legislators had drawn the district map was not justified and was unfair. The map was not representative of political geography nor of state interests, but rather focused on Republican interests, the court ruled.
“The evidence further makes clear that, although Wisconsin’s natural political geography plays some role in the apportionment process, it simply does not explain adequately the sizeable disparate effect seen in 2012 and 2014 under [the redistricting],” judges wrote in the ruling.
Republicans gained a majority in both chambers in 2010, the same year as the last 10-year U.S. census report, which state legislators use as they redraw district lines.
University of Wisconsin journalism and political science professor Mike Wagner, who has studied redistricting, said Wisconsin has one of the most imbalanced sets of districts in the nation’s history. Compared to the number of people who vote for Democrats, very few Democrats are actually present in the state Legislature, he said. The Republican redistricting map exhibited this imbalance.
The decision cited how Republicans received over 48 percent of the vote for Assembly candidates in 2012 but took 60 seats of the 99 seats and 52 percent of the vote in 2014, but 63 seats.
“The way the maps were drawn it seemed that they were unconstitutionally gerrymandered because they didn’t serve a constitutional purpose,” Wagner said.
The two judges in the majority wrote Republicans used “cracking” and “packing” as gerrymandering techniques. Cracking means to divide one party’s supporters among multiple districts so no district has a majority of them. Packing is concentrating supporters in one district so they win with “overwhelming margins” and “dilute” Democrat votes.
The dissenting judge wrote there’s no reason to believe the redistricting decisions weren’t made with political gain in mind, but that the way they did it was still constitutional. Although the Supreme Court has ruled definitively against purposeful racial redistricting, it hasn’t been as clear on political redistricting.
“The Supreme Court has long acknowledged partisan considerations are inevitable when partisan politicians draw,” the judge wrote.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, said in a statement that the panel’s decision is a “historic victory” for voters and will prevent Democratic votes from being subdued.
“Voters should be able to choose their representatives, not the other way around,” Barca said. “Today’s ruling is a victory for democracy and the people of Wisconsin.”
The panel has asked both sides of the case to propose solutions to alter and fix the redistricting process. Wagner said one solution to make redistricting more equitable could be to establish a non-partisan commission that clearly explains what can and cannot be done.
State legislators react to Republican sweep in state, national electionsIn the wake of Republicans winning their largest majority in the state Assembly since 1956, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Read…
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said in a statement the case is “unprecedented, and it isn’t over.” He said Republicans win elections not because of gerrymandering, but because they are better candidates who “resonate” with voters. Vos said the panel’s decision is “an encroachment” into the Legislature.
“We remain fully confident the maps were constitutional when adopted and will remain so when this case is finally concluded,” Vos said.