Few political issues in Wisconsin have been as contentious as the process of drawing district lines in the state over the past few decades has been. This issue recently resurfaced in a redistricting case that went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2018 when Wisconsin Democrats claimed the lines had been drawn illegally. While Wisconsin Democrats claim the state’s electoral maps are built through partisan gerrymandering, history and Supreme Court precedent prove this claim as baseless and devious.
This issue is often fraught with accusations of racial bias, and therefore it is beneficial to examine the constitutional framework for legislative redistricting. Article I Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution grants state legislatures the explicit authority to determine the time, place and manner of their elections for the House of Representatives. It also declares states maintain the right to draw the districts of their statehouse seats.
Nevertheless, this capacity is subject to congressional limitations. For example, the 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited the use of the redistricting process to intentionally harm a racial minority’s electoral prospects. Beyond exceptions like this one, districts are expected to be compact, contiguous and equally populated.
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For these reasons, it remains suspicious that Evers claims Wisconsin’s state legislative districts were formed illegally due to partisan gerrymandering. It is worth noting the distinction between racial and political bias. To believe Evers’ claim, one must either be ignorant of the 100th and 101st Wisconsin legislatures or, more likely, be motivated politically.
The 100th legislature, voted in after the 2010 state elections, was the last body resulting from the court-drawn 2001 map. At its peak, 60 Republicans — including an independent caucusing with them — comprised the newfound majority.
In 2010, Republicans took control of the state legislature under court-drawn maps and achieved the power to draw the election map for the next 10 years. Inconvenient for Evers, these new maps produced a total of 60 Republican Assembly members in 2012 . A net change of zero. If Republicans had intentions of stealing elections, this clearly proved ineffective.
The concept of a partisan gerrymander is itself dubious. Unlike race, political affiliation is not an immutable characteristic. A geographic region voting reliably for one party historically does not guarantee future voting outcomes. Democrats would be served well to run more effective candidates with messages that resonate with Wisconsinites rather than inaccurately point to the Republicans for their loss. We live in an electoral system that provides representation on the basis of both population and geography.
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Unsurprisingly, in 2015, Wisconsin Democrats filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Wisconsin State Assembly voting districts. This case eventually made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was declined to be heard. But in 2019, the court ruled on a similar North Carolina case whose precedent extended to Wisconsin.
“Partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts,” Justice Roberts said. “Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution, and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.”
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This brings us to Evers’ proposal for a nonpartisan redistricting committee. While this may sound great in theory, this would prove ineffective in practice. When Evers advocates nonpartisan maps, he is arguing for maps that will give more Assembly seats to Democrats. Like most bureaucratic agencies, a nonpartisan committee would be susceptible to corruption and partisanship, and it completely separates voters from the power of drawing districts.
Quite frankly, the Democratic Party’s solution to gerrymandering is gerrymandering rebranded. This process would place trust in a board of unelected bureaucrats, rather than the duly elected representatives on behalf of voters across Wisconsin.
Justin Hineline is a junior studying electrical engineering. He is a general member of the College Republicans of UW-Madison.
Read about the College Democrats’ position on nonpartisan political redistricting here.