Gov. Tony Evers issued an executive order Feb. 6 creating an independent panel to redraw legislative and congressional districts after the upcoming census to counterbalance the Republican-controlled state legislature drawn map.
The census has the potential to lay the political groundwork of Wisconsin for the next decade. It became a flashpoint of partisan conflict after a history of alleged gerrymandering by Republicans, which Democrats claim gain them a significant advantage, according to Associated Press reporting.
Evers’ concerns are not unfounded. According to University of Wisconsin political science professor and director of the Election’s Research Center Barry Burden, a Republican-led redistricting effort in 2011 was rebuked by the United States Supreme Court, who criticized the Wisconsin GOP for its efforts to gain power through skewed districts.
“There was a really significant lawsuit filed against the Assembly maps that went to the U.S. Supreme Court along with cases from a couple of other states, and the Supreme Court agreed that the maps reflected a partisan effort and were probably effective at getting Republicans more seats than they would’ve otherwise gotten,” Burden said. “But in the end, the court decided it was not a legal matter for them to decide, it was a political matter.”
Evidence from 2018 midterm election data points to the effects gerrymandered districts had throughout Wisconsin seven years after district maps had been drawn. In 2018 Gov. Scott Walker narrowly lost his re-election bid against Evers but Republicans won almost two-thirds of state Assembly districts.
An additional report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found 64 of Wisconsin’s 99 Assembly districts are more heavily skewed Republican than the state’s overall population on average, indicating roughly 65% of Wisconsin’s districts are not reflective of the state’s actual political makeup.
Evers’ attempt to offset the legislature’s maps with those of an independent panel is not an unusual concept. Burden said multiple states, including Michigan, Arizona and California assign the task of redistricting to non-partisan commissions. According to UW political science professor and legislative redistricting expert Kenneth Mayer, what sets Evers’ plan apart is that Wisconsin’s state Constitution explicitly provides the legislature with the power to draw district maps.
As a result, Mayer said the governor’s action is largely a symbolic gesture as Assembly and Senate Republicans have stated the maps they create will not be influenced by Evers’ commission.
“The initiative process that the governor set up does not have the authority to enact a map,” Mayer said. “It’s designed, I think, to present an alternative to the public. The legislature doesn’t have to consider it. They’ve already said they won’t. They’ve already rejected the notion that they will pay attention to this.”
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What makes Evers’ decision to establish a redistricting panel all the more prevalent is Wisconsin’s historical record as a purple state. Its government originally reflected such duality and negated the need for such a committee, according to Burden.
“Going back to the 1960s, every ten years when the census is done and it’s time to draw districts there has been some form of divided government,” Mayer said. “So, the parties have had to either work together or have been at a stalemate in every instance, the only exception being in 2011 when Republicans gained control and produced the districts we have today.”
In order to hand full responsibility for map creation over to an independent commission, Burden said the motion must first pass through both the state Senate and Assembly. This is a scenario he described as unlikely before being put to a vote decided by the citizens of Wisconsin.
Establishing a redistricting committee would require the approval of state legislature because Wisconsin’s state Constitution does not yield voters the power to place issues on a statewide ballot.
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Yet, the idea of a redistricting committee created by a Democratic governor has drawn criticism from Republicans including Representative Robin Vos who accused Evers of pandering to his base, alleging most Wisconsinites outside of Evers’ voting bloc do not support such a measure.
Mayer acknowledged while Republicans have been the primary perpetrators of gerrymandering in Wisconsin, it is unclear whether Democrats would seize a similar opportunity if given the chance, noting this has occurred in past instances of Democratic-controlled redistricting across the country.
“I don’t want to fall back on ‘both sides do it,’ even though both sides do,” Mayer said. “There are classic examples of Democrats in California. When they had the opportunity to draw district lines, they have [produced gerrymandered districts].”
In an apparent effort to quell concerns of partisan bias, Evers pledged to forbid lawmakers and lobbyists from sitting on the commission, which will include citizens from each of Wisconsin’s Congressional districts created in 2011. He also promised to generate balanced districts after this year’s census.
The census is April 1, 2020.