The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Tuesday regarding the legality of political boundaries in the state widely considered to have been drawn to benefit Republican lawmakers in the state over Democrats – what many describe as a partisan gerrymander.
Current law requires both houses of the state legislature, as well as the governor, to approve maps crafted through the decennial redistricting process, affecting both congressional and state legislative seats. In 2011, when Republicans won complete control of the legislative and executive branches of government, they crafted maps that ensured a strong majority for the GOP through the remainder of the decade, which many critics at the time derided as being a clear gerrymander.
Those maps were drawn in highly secretive meetings between GOP lawmakers and their consultants alone, without any public input. When records were eventually released in 2012 detailing some of those meetings, it was evident that Republicans aimed to create a permanent majority in the legislative branch, in spite of the possibility that voters’ preferences could change in the future, by manipulating maps to benefit their party. In one email that was obtained, for instance, a consultant involved in the process admitted that conservative lawmakers were “wildly gerrymandering” the maps to help Republicans.
In 2022, when it was time to redraw maps once again, a new Democratic governor, Tony Evers, took office. However, after several disputes in the state and federal court systems, a largely unchanged map from 2011 remained in place.
The current lawsuit that the State Supreme Court is hearing regarding the status of the maps rests upon two issues: first, that the maps existing now include districts that are not contiguous, in direct violation of the state constitution’s mandate on how they should be drawn. Second, the judicial process that ultimately resulted in Republicans being able to keep their maps largely unchanged – despite a veto by Governor Evers in 2022 – that allowed the legislature to override the governor’s veto in an unconstitutional way.
Many in the state who disagree with the current maps are hopeful that the court will rule to get rid of the gerrymandered maps, due to a recent change in the court’s makeup. In April of this year, the state Supreme Court, which had been controlled by a conservative bloc majority during most of the past decade of contentious arguments over the maps, switched to liberal control upon the statewide election of Justice Janet Protasiewicz.
In oral arguments on Tuesday morning, conservative bloc members of the court questioned the timing of the new lawsuit, even though their comments wouldn’t undermine the legality of their arguments in any fashion.
“Everybody knows that the reason we’re here is because there was a change in the membership of the court,” bemoaned Justice Rebecca Bradley.
Mark Gaber, an attorney from the Campaign Legal Center representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, disputed that claim, stating that the suit was set to be filed whether a liberal or conservative had won that election. The constitutionality of the maps isn’t “a partisan issue,” he said.
The court is expected to issue a ruling in early 2024 to ensure that a permanent map structure is in place for the elections later that year. Democrats and other voting rights groups are hopeful that the court will strike down the current maps and order a redrawing of new ones that are more fair and reflect their constituents’ actual political wants.
“Misshapen districts have affected the ability of cities to implement policies that reflect the values and needs of their residents. … For the sake of democracy, we are hopeful that the Wisconsin Supreme Court will order that a referee redraw the maps in advance of the next election cycle,” Jonathan Miller, chief program officer of Public Rights Project, said in a statement.
Wisconsin is widely known for having one of the most politically gerrymandered sets of maps in the country, with many recognizing that, while statewide races are generally extremely close between the two political parties, in the state legislature Republicans have consistently held power since 2011.
Unlike in some “deep-red” Republican states, historically, the state legislature in Wisconsin has regularly changed hands. According to Ballotpedia, from 1992 to 2010, there were only four periods of time where one political party held control over both the Senate and the Assembly. During none of those periods, however, did it last longer than four years, and in two of those periods, Democrats were able to win full control of the state legislature, too.
“Wisconsin is an evenly divided purple state and Tony Evers won re-election with 51.2% of the vote, but on the very same 2022 midterm ballots, Republicans won more than 60% of seats in the state legislature. It just doesn’t add up,” Wisconsin-based journalist Dan Shafer commented on his news site, The Recombobulation Area, in March.
Wisconsinites overall are largely opposed to the kind of gerrymandering they have witnessed in recent years, with one poll commissioned by Represent.Us finding that 87 percent disapproved of the current system of redrawing maps. That same survey also found that a majority of residents (57 percent) believed voters themselves should be involved in having a final say in approving maps, and nearly three-quarters of residents (73 percent) back prohibiting districts from being drawn up to benefit one party over another.
During the hearing on Tuesday, protesters gathered at the state Capitol to voice their demands for a fairer map-drawing process.
“We need to get rid of the Etch-a-Sketch gerrymandered maps and we need fair maps now,” one demonstrator inside the Capitol rotunda said.
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