Skip to content Skip to footer

WI GOP Offers “Nonpartisan” Redistricting Bill That Still Lets Them Draw Maps

The proposal came after Republicans realized they couldn’t impeach a justice who would likely rule against current maps.

MADISON, WI - MARCH 04: A map of Wisconsin with a sad face is taped to the wall inside the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 4, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. Some demonstrators have returned to the capitol building hours after they were forced to vacate the building after occupying it for more than two weeks in protest to Governor Scott Walker's attempt to push through a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for most government workers in the state. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Democrats in Wisconsin, as well as many political observers in the state, are decrying a plan by Republicans to create a purportedly nonpartisan redistricting process that on its face sounds good, but upon further examination doesn’t actually change the likelihood that political maps will continue to be gerrymandered.

Republicans have, since 2011, won the state legislature in a disproportionate measure in statewide elections in large part because they have been able to draw clearly gerrymandered districts in the state in their own favor. In 2020, for example, while the presidential race in Wisconsin was a dead heat (with Democratic candidate Joe Biden winning by just over 20,000 votes over Republican Donald Trump), the GOP won 61 seats in the 99-seat state Assembly. In 2022, while Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, won the state with over 51 percent of the vote, Republicans improved representation in the state Assembly, attaining 64 seats in total that year.

Now, since the election of state Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz earlier this year, which flipped the court to liberal control, Republicans have threatened to impeach her over her comments about what most Wisconsinites are well-aware of – that the electoral maps are “rigged” to favor the GOP. Preventing Protasiewicz from being able to serve would also disallow her from taking part in a case on the redistricting process in the state, where it’s expected that the liberal bloc of justices will find the process in violation of the state constitution.

State Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos (R) appeared ready to push forward with the impeachment plan. However, after it appeared unlikely that he had the votes from his own party to go through with it, he pulled back from the idea. Instead, at a press conference attended by him and other Republican lawmakers on Tuesday, he announced he was ready to embrace redistricting reform, which Democrats had been pushing for years.

Vos said the legislation his party would offer would be the same in scope to what a bipartisan bill, proposed in 2019, looks like. “We are going to get this bill passed, we are going to get it signed by Gov. Evers, we’re going to have maps that look different,” he said.

Vos announced the bill would be put up for a vote on Thursday. Democrats, including Evers, indicated deep skepticism over the idea before the bill was made public, expressing doubts that Vos was acting in good faith.

“A Legislature that has repeatedly demonstrated they will not uphold basic tenets of our democracy — and will bully, threaten, or fire on a whim anyone who happens to disagree with them — cannot be trusted to appoint or oversee someone charged with drawing fair maps,” Evers said in a statement.

The skepticism appears to have been warranted, as the new bill has a glaring difference from the 2019 bipartisan version.

The two versions of the bill both mirror the “Iowa model” for redistricting, which has a nonpartisan state agency produce maps that are overseen and guided by a commission consisting of individuals selected by the majority and minority leaders from both houses of the state legislature, with an additional person for that commission selected by the original four. However, the 2019 version included a failsafe to prevent gerrymandering from still happening, whereas, in the 2023 version, that failsafe has been omitted.

When the commission submits the maps to the legislature to vote on, lawmakers can vote them up or down. If they don’t approve a set of maps, the commission reconvenes and produces a new set, addressing the concerns stated by the lawmakers. If that second set doesn’t work, the process is repeated for a third time.

In the 2019 bill, the state legislature is allowed to amend the maps in the third round but only if three-fourths of the commission agrees to the changes they make. In the new 2023 version of the bill, the commission doesn’t play a role in approving amendments to the maps, and the state legislature is allowed to change them on their own — a key difference between the two bills which allows lawmakers to still pass gerrymandered maps, simply by rejecting the commission’s proposals after two votes.

“Say it’s voted down twice, the Legislature can do what they normally do, which is just amend the legislation and pass whatever version they want,” Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, said to The Wisconsin Examiner. “And so that would allow the Republicans in Wisconsin to just vote down the nonpartisan maps twice and then put forward their own plan.”

A nonpartisan assessment of the bill also notes that the redistricting process, while laid out in great detail, “is not enforceable by the courts” under the terms of the legislation.

Philip Rocco, a political science professor at Marquette University, suggested the “nonpartisan” proposal by Vos was another example of Wisconsin Republicans finding a way to change the election system in the state to favor themselves.

“A better way of thinking of this bill is an ‘Iowa style’ redistricting plan with several ‘Wisconsin style’ escape hatches that nullify the whole thing,” Rocco tweeted.

“Vos’s proposal is a system where staff draws maps, but then if the legislature — meaning Vos, as Speaker — rejects them, he can change them however he wants. Nope,” wrote Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Vos has said he’s open to amendments on the bill, but nonpartisan voting rights groups in the state said he shouldn’t be taken at his word.

“This proposal is being pushed by the same legislators who have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to undermine democratic principles, failed to advance education and health care policies that the majority of Wisconsinites support and a history of rejecting similar nonpartisan redistricting proposals,” read a statement from The Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition. “Trusting these lawmakers to uphold the principles of fair and nonpartisan redistricting is difficult, given their track record of prioritizing partisan interests over the integrity of the electoral process.”

“Today’s events prove what we’ve always known: Vos is untrustworthy & not interested in democracy,” read a tweet from the Wisconsin-based Fair Elections Project. “The voters statewide have rejected his viewpoint. The legal case must move forward and is the best path to resolve the constitutional issue at stake.”

Tired of reading the same old news from the same old sources?

So are we! That’s why we’re on a mission to shake things up and bring you the stories and perspectives that often go untold in mainstream media. But being a radically, unapologetically independent news site isn’t easy (or cheap), and we rely on reader support to keep the lights on.

If you like what you’re reading, please consider making a tax-deductible donation today. We’re not asking for a handout, we’re asking for an investment: Invest in a nonprofit news site that’s not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, not afraid to stand up for what’s right, and not afraid to tell it like it is.