The People’s Maps Commission held a public hearing last Thursday in Wisconsin’s 2nd Congressional District — which includes the city of Madison — where citizens voiced concerns about partisan gerrymandering in the redistricting process.
Redistricting, or the redrawing of voting districts, occurs every ten years after each U.S. Census. Voting districts are redrawn to represent population changes and make sure that each district in Wisconsin represents roughly the same amount of people.
The commission was created by Gov. Tony Evers in January 2020 and consists of a chairperson and one representative from each of Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts. Its primary responsibility is to create impartial maps which will be submitted to the state legislature for consideration in 2021.
“The people should choose their elected officials, not the other way around,” Evers said when announcing the commission. “Wisconsin must look to the people, not politicians, to assist in drawing maps that fairly and accurately represent our state.”
As part of their map-making process, The People’s Maps Commission has held a virtual hearing in each congressional district to gather public input on redistricting before drafting their recommended map. Thursday’s hearing, held in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, was the final opportunity for citizens to voice their opinions.
Retired nurse and Dane County resident Wendy Carlson said at the hearing that she worried that gerrymandering posed a threat to democracy.
“I have deep concerns for the future of democracy in our state and in our country,” Carlson said. “Legislators in gerrymandered safe seats are no longer accountable to the will of the majority of voters … this is un-democratic and un-American.”
Dane County resident Shirley Smith agreed that gerrymandering has consequences for real people.
“It’s clear that until non-partisan maps for voting districts are drawn and adopted, making each person’s vote count equally, ordinary citizens will continue to struggle for our lives and livelihoods,” Smith said.
Carlson went on to express support for local resolutions favoring non-partisan redistricting. These efforts have been led by the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, an organization advocating for non-partisan redistricting.
Voters in 28 counties and 20 municipalities have passed a Fair Maps referendum, with four counties and the city of Appleton slated to vote on the referendum in the April elections. A similar resolution, which is approved by county governments instead of voters, has been passed in 54 counties, which represents over 80 percent of Wisconsin’s population.
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign Executive Director Matt Rothschild also testified and criticized the lack of transparency in past redistricting processes.
“In 2011, the drawing was done in the dark, in the locked map room of a private law office,” Rothschild said. “That’s not how redistricting should be done in a democracy. Redistricting should be done in sunlight, not in darkness.”
The 2011 redistricting process was dominated by Republicans, who controlled the Governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature.
In just two months, Republican legislators released their new maps, passed them through the Assembly and Senate after holding one public hearing and delivered them to former Gov. Scott Walker’s desk, where they were signed into law.
During the process, only Republicans were allowed to see how the maps were drafted, and were required to sign non-disclosure agreements before accessing the “map room.”
It was only after Senate Democrats gained access to computer records in 2012 that it was revealed Republicans had created a partisan gerrymander by packing Democratic voters into districts or splitting their votes between two districts.
As a result, Republicans have enjoyed large electoral victories in Wisconsin, even in elections where they failed to win a majority of the vote. In November’s elections, Democrats only won 38.4 percent of the Assembly seats despite getting 45.5 percent of the vote, and won only 36.4 percent of Senate seats with 46.5 percent of the vote.
Later this year, the Republican legislature will consider the People’s Maps Commission proposals and then draft their own map proposal which will be sent to Evers for approval. The Republican proposal will probably be vetoed by Evers, at which point federal courts will likely be tasked with drawing non-partisan maps, as they did in 1991 and 2001.
In 2019, the Republican leaders denied they would attempt to pass redistricting maps through a joint resolution, which could not be vetoed by the governor, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.
Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty Executive Director Rick Esenberg had told the Wisconsin Examiner that he was not working with Republicans on a joint resolution plan, but added that redistricting is reserved to the legislature and “should be taken literally.”
A 1964 court ruling found redistricting by joint resolution unconstitutional, but with a conservative-controlled state Supreme Court, that precedent could be challenged.
Tyler Katzenberger is the State News Editor at The Daily Cardinal. He has covered numerous protests and written state politics, healthcare, business and in-depth stories. Follow him on Twitter at @tk_kutz.