Restoring sanity to Wisconsin government

April 1, 2021 6:45 am

Demonstrators gather outside the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments in Gill v. Whitford, Wisconsin’s gerrymandering case. (Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

The conservative majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturns an emergency public health order in the middle of a pandemic — even as new COVID cases rise. Writing for the majority, Justice Brian Hagedorn acknowledges that the virus is “dangerous” and has “taken far too many lives,” but the important issue, he writes — bolstered by two separate amicus briefs from the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature — is that “the power to end and to refuse to extend a state of emergency resides with the legislature even when the underlying occurrence creating the emergency remains a threat.”

Great for the Legislature. Too bad for you and me. 

Wisconsin was on the cusp of finally emerging from the pandemic through our vaccine program, currently ranking first in the nation for getting shots in arms. Public health officials predicted we could reach herd immunity by June. Now, by joining other states that are lifting restrictions too early, we are staring down the barrel of “impending doom,” as CDC director Rochelle Walensky has warned

But hey, at least the Legislature’s power is protected.

Wednesday’s news is par for the course in our Republican-dominated state government, which appears to be hell-bent on working against the interests of the people it supposedly represents. As my colleague Melanie Conklin has reported, the Legislature did not hold a single legislative session for nine months during the pandemic — although they did award themselves $555,000 for lodging, transportation and other daily expenses during that time. Oh, and they also dedicated themselves to filing a series of lawsuits to block Gov. Tony Evers and his public health department’s COVID-related public health orders.

On the same day the conservatives on the court were protecting the Legislature’s right to do nothing to protect us from COVID-19, the Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections was holding a hearing to explore discredited conspiracy theories about nonexistent election fraud, driving toward the goal of making it harder for Wisconsinites to vote. (And only one Republican was wearing a mask.) 

The good news is that people are beginning to notice the disconnect between the Legislature’s priorities and the public interest — and trying to do something about it. Wisconsinites are connecting the dots between gerrymandered maps that protect a safe majority for Republican legislative leaders and their arrogant lack of interest in the issues that matter to the public.

As Carlene Bechen, statewide organizer of the Fair Maps Coalition puts it, “the lack of any sort of movement on the part of the state Legislature to lift a finger to help people during the worst part of COVID had everything to do with gerrymandering.”


Next Tuesday, April 6, there will be five referenda on local ballots asking voters whether they want to end partisan gerrymandering and make Wisconsin’s legislative districts competitive again. In Ashland, Buffalo, Polk and Richland counties, as well as in the heavily gerrymandered city of Appleton, voters will have a chance to weigh in on nonpartisan redistricting. 

These local ballot measures can’t force the Legislature to adopt a fair and transparent process for drawing the next round of voting maps this year, but they do show overwhelming public support for ending the map rigging that has distorted state government. Some 56 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties have already passed such resolutions, with overwhelming, bipartisan citizen support.

“The most important thing that’s happening is that people around the state are incredibly aware of this issue in a way that I don’t think they were before,” says Bechen.

Besides supporting referenda, Bechen and teams of Fair Maps volunteers around the state have written hundreds of letters to the editor, sent thousands of emails to legislators, and mailed 10,000 postcards asking for a nonpartisan process. 

The Fair Maps Coalition is also organizing volunteers to form “community mapping teams” Using free mapping software, neighborhood groups are experimenting with drawing their own maps. 

Bechen’s goal is to get 75-100 people all around the state trained to use the software, and then to lead conversations on fair mapping in church groups, Rotary clubs and local diners, to draw maps that genuinely reflect local communities.

When school districts, watershed areas and other communities of interest are split up, as they are under the current map, citizens lose power to get action on the issues they care about, Bechen points out.

Looking at the current map, with its crazy districts that crack localities into splinters with far-flung representatives, “the intentions are so clear,” Bechen says.

If Wisconsin’s districts were drawn fairly, she adds, “We would probably tilt slightly Republican, and we would be much more balanced in our state Legislature, and then there would be accountability, and there would be collaboration and cooperation.”

That’s a long way from where we are now. But Bechen is optimistic. 

At the same time Fair Maps volunteers around the state are agitating for a nonpartisan process, Evers’ People’s Maps Commission has held hearings in 65 counties on how redistricting affects people’s lives, launching an open and transparent process for drawing new maps and inviting public input.

The maps that citizens come up with won’t have the force of law. Under state law, the Legislature is charged with drawing new maps after 2020 Census data becomes available by September 30. But the people’s maps are an illuminating public exercise, and will serve as a model of what an open process and a fair map look like.

They also set up a stark contrast with the current map, drawn in 2011 in a secret, one-party process designed to give Republicans a lopsided advantage and disproportionate power. 

This year, legislative Republicans have already hired private, taxpayer-funded attorneys to represent them in the lawsuits they expect to arise from the next round of redistricting. Contracts signed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, first reported by WisPolitics, allow them to spend more than $1 million in taxpayer money on private law firms to defend their map.

Under a contract with a Washington law firm that represented former President Donald Trump, “the state began paying $30,000 a month starting in January to cover consulting,” AP’s Scott Bauer reports. “The monthly fee will jump to $200,000 a month in July or when a lawsuit is filed, whichever comes first.”

Attorney Lester Pines, representing four Madison teachers, is suing to stop the payments, arguing that the state can’t start spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on anticipated lawsuits, before those lawsuits are even filed.

“They’re basically willing to spend any amount of taxpayer money to try to rig the maps and retain power for another 10 years,” says Sachin Chheda, director of the Fair Elections Project, a group dedicated to fighting partisan gerrymandering around the country. 

Meanwhile, Bechen’s teams of volunteers are meeting in church basements and coffee shops to draw their own maps, and many of them are also participating in the People’s Maps Commission process. 

“The point is that people want there to be a public discussion of gerrymandering. They want there to be a public discussion of the redistricting process, because it fundamentally affects every other issue that state government deals with,” says Chheda. After the People’s Maps Commission comes up with a map using public input, Chheda says  “it will be a clear thing to compare it with a map the Republican Legislature draws — is this a fair map or is that a fair map?”

That question could be decided in court, as both state and federal lawsuits are filed over the next round of redistricting. Beyond raising public awareness, a People’s Map could be presented as an alternative to whatever the Legislature comes up with.

Attorney Doug Poland of Law Forward, who was involved in court cases over the secretive, one-party redistricting process of 2011, holds out hope for a fair and open process this time. That would involve Democratic and Republican caucuses in the Legislature each drawing their own maps using the census data that comes out in September. Then they could hold public hearings over several days, with plenty of opportunity for public input, followed by “robust debate” on the floor. Then the Legislature would adopt new districts and send the map to the governor to either sign or veto.

“That’s the way it should work,” says Poland. “That’s important, because good process yields good results.”

In 2011, “it was about as bad as a process can possibly be,” he adds.

That year, when Republicans controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, “the Republican caucus knew they could do whatever they wanted,” Poland says. “And what they wanted to do — as we proved at trial — was to put in place the most partisan, skewed map they possibly could, that would entrench Republican control of the Legislature for a decade.”

When Wisconsin elected a Democratic governor, Republicans began talking about making an end-run around him and gerrymandering again by passing the next voting map as a joint resolution, which doesn’t require the governor’s signature. The Wisconsin Supreme Court has already declared that move unconstitutional, but that was decades ago, and the new court might be willing to overturn the precedent.

Other possible lawsuits that could come out of the next round of redistricting include federal cases based on the Voting Rights Act and specific challenges to legislative districts in state court.

The current effort by Republican attorneys to fast-track redistricting cases to the Wisconsin Supreme Court wouldn’t necessarily mean a rigged map, Poland says.

“I think that people sort of get into this mindset of thinking, ‘Look at the ideological makeup of the state Supreme Court … the fix is in’ …. I don’t necessarily know that that’s true. It depends what the issues are.”

Supreme Court Chief Justice Patience Roggensack sounded skeptical about whether the Court should take on map-drawing at a hearing in January.

So what’s the best hope for getting a fair map? “I think the best hope is that the Legislature goes about the process of redistricting the way it’s supposed to play out,” says Poland.

OK, so given what we know about the Legislature, what’s the second best hope? 

“There’s no question that this is going to end up in court,” Poland says. And despite the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s reputation for siding with Republicans in outcome-driven decisions, Poland holds out hope there, too. Over the last six months, he says, he sees the Court trying to steer away from ideologically driven decisions “trying to decide cases not based on some broad, ideological principal, but addressing the issue that’s in front of them,” he says.

Federal courts will likely have something to say about the next map, too. And so might the national political parties, which will take an interest in how the process plays out in our swing state.

Most importantly, the public is watching.

“Ten years ago there was simply no attention focused on the issue of redistricting,” Poland says. “Now there is a very heightened awareness of the problems — and it’s not just single party control, which we’ve had for almost 11 years now. There’s also a recognition of the policy outcomes that result.”

Recent Marquette University Law School polling shows that large majorities of Wisconsinites favor accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid, passing common sense gun safety laws, and, you guessed it — nonpartisan redistricting.

But legislative leaders don’t care. They have ignored these issues because majority opinion doesn’t decide whether they hold onto power or not. The next map could change that. 

Knowing that the maps they come up with to keep themselves in power won’t be popular with the voting public, legislative leaders have already committed $1 million of our money to defend them in court.

There’s only one solution. Time to get down to the local coffee shop or church basement and start drawing the maps that will put the voters back in charge.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Her book "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel Award from The New Press.