During a first public hearing, Democrats rebuffed a new Republican-sponsored nonpartisan redistricting bill for changes they believe could endanger bipartisanship Thursday morning.
The bill's authors, Republican Reps. Joel Kitchens of Sturgeon Bay, Loren Oldenburg of Viroqua, Travis Tranel of Cuba City, and Sen. Dan Knodl of Germantown, presented it to the Senate Committee on Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said the proposal would task the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) and an advisory committee with drawing new bipartisan redistricting maps.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers shot down this bill in September. “Republicans are making a last-ditch effort to retain legislative control by having someone Legislature-picked and Legislature-approved draw Wisconsin’s maps,” Evers said. “That is bogus.”
Assembly Republicans initially proposed the Iowa-style redistricting model during a press conference in September as they backtracked on threats to impeach liberal Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz.
“This bill coming forward is really an attempt that we can perhaps avoid ending up in litigation when we do redistricting and keep it to truly a legislative process with a nonpartisan commission,” Knodl said.
Democrats put forth a similar redistricting proposal in 2019 that Republicans rejected. The plan required the LRB to draw bipartisan maps and report to an advisory committee of two Democrats, two Republicans and a fifth member chosen by the other four members of the board to serve as chairman.
Democrats had issues Thursday with certain provisions of the current bill which differed from their 2019 proposal.
“My two concerns here are, on the one hand, nothing in this bill guarantees that we actually get a new map at all, but on the other hand, nothing in this bill guarantees that we get a fair map,” Sen. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said.
Sen. Jeff Smith, D-Brunswick, questioned the public’s trust in the Legislature for creating new maps, but Knodl argued Democrats switching sides on this issue sowed distrust.
“When they hear one party say that they were for something for a decade, and now they're suddenly against it, that's probably where we have some trust issues,” Knodl said.
The bill does not ensure new maps would be created before the decennial redistricting in 2030, something Spreitzer said doesn’t address Democrats’ hopes to revise current Republican-leaning maps before the 2024 election.
“We gave Democrats every opportunity to participate, but unfortunately, they declined,” Kitchens said. “If we don't seize this, none of us will live long enough to see it happening in Wisconsin. This is our one chance.”
The court’s relation
This bill came as a response to conflict in the courts over current maps.
Protasiewicz refused to recuse herself from redistricting cases after calling the current gerrymandered maps “rigged” and receiving $10 million from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin during her election campaign.
Vos demanded her recusal and threatened to impeach her if she didn’t comply. He softened on impeachment threats leading up to the unveiling of the redistricting proposal but has since revisited the idea.
Protasiewicz disagreed with Vos’ demands, citing the lack of precedent for her recusal.
“I will set aside my opinions and decide cases based on the law,” she wrote. “There will surely be many cases in which I reach results that I personally dislike. That is what it means to be a judge.”
Vos met with former conservative Supreme Court Justices Patience Roggensack, David Prosser and Jon Wilcox in early October to discuss the possibility of impeachment.
Wilcox and Prosser have openly disagreed with impeachment accusations. Both said Vos’ statements lack precedent and would create further partisan division.
The Iowa model
Republicans’ nonpartisan redistricting plan is based on the Iowa model, which has been used in Iowa for over 50 years.
In the Wisconsin Republicans’ version, the LRB would create a new map without using partisan data. Then, the advisory committee would hold at least eight public hearings, including events in Madison, Milwaukee and northern Wisconsin.
Once the LRB submits the maps to the Legislature, lawmakers have seven days to respond. If they disapprove, they must give a statement with reason. The LRB then has 21 days to draft a new map.
Unlike in Iowa, where there is a limit of three drafts before the Legislature is forced to make amendments, the Wisconsin proposal provides no limit to how many times the Legislature can go back and forth with the LRB.
Ed Cook, the Senior Counsel of the Iowa Legislative Services Agency, shared the success of the model in his state. Maps have been passed on the first or second draft for each decennial redistricting with nearly unanimous votes.
However, the third LRB redistricting proposal is subject to amendment in the same manner as other bills. Democrats oppose the provision and argue it would lead back to stalemates between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.
There is a natural deadline of April 15, 2024, for the bill to affect the next election because presidential nomination papers are due, according to Spreitzer.
Republicans have grown frustrated with Democrats' smaller contingencies.
“We can nitpick the legislation all day long, but at the end of the day, we're either for the Iowa model or we're not,” said Tranel.
Authors believed that, if a stalemate occurred, it would move up to the courts. But there is no provision in the document specifying so, unlike in the Iowa model.
Wisconsin’s redistricting bills typically have “specific language” relating to the high Black and Latino populations in districts like Milwaukee due to the Voting Rights Act (VRA), but the Iowa Model lacks these provisions because no districts fall under the VRA, according to Speitzer.
The three-fourths majority
The current bill requires new maps be passed on a bipartisan vote, but the Iowa model and previous Democratic nonpartisan redistricting bills require three-fourths majority in both houses.
That means, under Wisconsin Republicans’ plan, just one Democrat needs to vote for the bill to pass it.
Jay Heck, state director for Common Cause, a nonpartisan political advocacy organization, voiced his support for three-fourths of the majority to ensure partisanship.
In Iowa, “Democrats and Republicans actually talk to each other about redistricting,” Heck said, adding that Wisconsin lacks a pattern of bipartisan cooperation.
Heck also criticized the bill for being rushed to the floor without a public hearing when it has been an issue for decades.
Republican support held strong despite criticism.
“I think this is the moment that we Democrats and Republicans can come together to take this divisive issue off the table and prove to the people in Wisconsin that we can govern effectively together,” Knodl said.
Kitchens called a three-fourths vote a “ridiculously high threshold when people are going to vote upon their individual conscience.”
The Senate has not scheduled a vote on the bill at this time. The redistricting proposal has already passed the Assembly, meaning approval in the Senate would send it to Evers’ desk.
Evers has strongly opposed the bill in public statements.