State News

Nonpartisan redistricting reform proposed to increase equity in future Wisconsin

The proposed referendum comes as Wisconsin lawmakers will redraw the electoral districts within the state in 2021. 

The proposed referendum comes as Wisconsin lawmakers will redraw the electoral districts within the state in 2021. 

Image By: Courtesy of Department of the Interior - National Atlas of the United States

More than a dozen counties and municipalities in Wisconsin voted in favor of an advisory referendum for a nonpartisan redistricting process on Nov. 3. 

The referendum pushes for state lawmakers to accept new district maps made by a nonpartisan group when lines can be redrawn in 2021. However, the referendum is nonbinding, meaning legislators are not legally obligated to accept the maps.

Common Cause Wisconsin, a part of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition responsible for putting the referendum on ballots, hopes it puts political pressure on legislators to pass a bill that would permanently shift redistricting powers away from state lawmakers.

Currently, 28 counties and 20 municipalities in four other counties in the state have voted in favor of the referendum. A similar resolution, passed by county governments instead of direct vote, has been passed in 54 counties, which represent more than 80 percent of Wisconsin’s population.

Referendums like the Fair Voting Maps and Non-Partisan Redistricting Reform generally receive widespread support when put to a vote, with margins as high as 80 percent in some counties.

The mandate calls for a redistricting process similar one found in Iowa, which appoints a temporary nonpartisan committee to provide guidance and review maps before the state legislature votes on it.

The state Legislature currently draws Wisconsin’s maps and in the past resulted in one party taking advantage of their majority to create favorable districts. In 2011, state Republicans, who controlled the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature, drew the current maps from a private law office outside of public view. 

In private, lawmakers have the ability to gerrymander districts and pass maps that overwhelmingly favor one party.

Following the ratification of the 2011 maps, only one Republican assembly seat had flipped before the Nov. 3 election when state Democrats picked up two more seats. In the 2018 election, Republicans won 63 of 99 possible seats in the assembly, despite the party winning only 46 percent of votes in the state.

Political pundits and commentators often mention Wisconsin as one of the gerrymandered states in the entire country.

“Drawing maps with an emphasis on promoting partisan competition would do more than make the Legislature more responsive to Wisconsin's challenges,” retired state assembly lawmaker Fred Kessler wrote after the election. “Equally important, it would achieve citizen confidence in the process and affirm that democracy exists at the state level.”

Earlier this year, Gov. Tony Evers created the People’s Maps Commission, a nonpartisan group, tasked with drawing and proposing fair maps to the state Legislature. The group holds monthly public hearings to discuss current and future maps.

However it remains unclear if the maps drawn by this group would be taken up by the legislature.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Burlington, dismissed the commission as a “fake, phony, partisan process” in January.

While the fate of the commission's maps are still uncertain, a bill that would make the non-partisan redistricting process a reality is currently co-sponsored by every Democratic lawmaker in the state capitol and six Republicans. 

The latest Republican to co-sponsor the bill, Jeff Mursau, R-Crivitz, decided to support the effort after a poll from his district showed overwhelming support for the measure — about 78 percent thought the bill was a good idea while only six percent opposed it. 

“After reading the comments and responses from last week’s question and looking over the bill,” Mursau said. “I’ve decided to add myself as a co-sponsor.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story has been corrected to reflect the number of groups that belong to the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, and the number of municipalities who have passed the referendum.

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