Fight for fair maps heats up

By: - May 15, 2021 3:32 pm
Protesters attend a rally for "Fair Maps" earlier this year in Washington, DC. (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

Protesters attend a rally for “Fair Maps” in 2019 in Washington, DC. (Tasos Katopodis | Getty Images)

On Monday, Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire) and Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay) will re-introduce nonpartisan redistricting legislation, unveiling their bill at a noon fair maps rally at the State Street entrance to the State Capitol emceed by Wisconsin comedian Kristin Brey.

The battle for a fair process for drawing the state’s political maps is heating up, as the Legislature prepares to create a new map after 2020 census data becomes available some time between mid-August and the end of September.

Republican legislative leaders have already hired lawyers to represent them in anticipation of lawsuits over the next round of maps. Dane County Circuit Court Judge Stephen Elke ruled that they would have to dissolve the contracts with those lawyers, since no lawsuits have yet been filed. GOP leaders are appealing that decision.

On Friday, the Wisconsin Supreme Court rejected a petition for a rule change sought by former Republican Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty that would have put the conservative-dominated state Supreme Court, not the federal courts, in charge of redistricting litigation. The court’s opinion noted that written comments collected from citizens and public interest groups suggested “the proposal is partisan.”

Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay), one of the authors of the bill to establish an independent, nonpartisan redistricting process in Wisconsin, is new to the Legislature, after unseating a 14-year incumbent in her closely watched 2020 campaign. 

Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay)

“It was incredibly difficult and incredibly expensive,” she says of her race. One of her campaign promises was to try to do something about Wisconsin’s gerrymandered political map. “There are so few competitive districts, because of the way the lines were drawn 10 years ago,” she says. “I would like to see our redistricting process be more fair and drawn in a way that represents communities, not the interests of individual politicians.”

The GOP leadership of the Wisconsin Legislature is unlikely to agree. Wisconsin’s gerrymandered maps give them a significant advantage, allowing them to hold onto their majority in the Legislature even when Democrats win more votes statewide, thanks to some of the most heavily skewed voting maps in the country. 

But even if redistricting remains a partisan brawl in Wisconsin this year, Andraca says, it’s worth pushing for change. “I’m new here; I don’t know what the process will ultimately be,” she says. “However, whatever this map ends up being, next time there is a new map, I want to make sure that my kids aren’t dealing with this mess in 10 years.” 

“I want to make sure that Wisconsin returns to its roots of open, transparent government, and we can finally stop the titanic battle every decade of who’s going to win, and who’s in control, because that serves nobody,” she adds. “It’s in nobody’s best interests, except the politicians behind it.”

“Our democracy isn’t working the way it should because of gerrymandering,” says Matthew Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which monitors money in politics. He points to the disconnect between public opinion and legislation on popular  issues such as medical marijuana, universal background checks for gun purchases, mandatory minimum sentencing, and accepting federal money to expand BadgerCare and give health insurance coverage to more Wisconsinites.

Matthew Rothschild (photo courtesy of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign)
Matthew Rothschild (photo courtesy of Wisconsin Democracy Campaign)

“A clear majority also want an increase in the minimum wage and would rather have more spending on public education … but we’re not getting any of these reforms because of gerrymandering,” Rothschild says.

The current system, in which the Legislature gets to draw the map and the governor must veto or sign it, sets up a showdown over which party in our divided government gains an advantage.

“For the last four decades, and now probably the fifth, partisan squabbles over redrawing the maps have ended up in court, costing Wisconsin taxpayers millions of dollars each time,” Rothschild says. “All we’re asking for is an even playing field. No party should be able to win just by rigging lines on a map.”

Drawing ‘People’s Maps’

Gov. Tony Evers’ People’s Maps Commission has held hearings throughout the state on how redistricting affects people’s lives, launching an open and transparent process for drawing new maps and inviting public input.

The chair of the People’s Maps Commission, Dr. Christopher Ford, is an emergency physician in Milwaukee. After graduating from college in South Carolina, he came to Wisconsin for medical school, where he met his wife, a Wisconsin native. The couple stayed in the area after Ford completed his residency as chief medical resident at UW hospitals and clinics, so they could raise their children near his wife’s family.

Dr. Christopher Ford (photo courtesy of UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health)
Dr. Christopher Ford (photo courtesy of UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health)

He had his kids in mind when he joined the commission, he says. He wanted “to make it possible that when they grow up their vote counts, that in the community they choose to live in they have a say in the decisions that are made and really feel represented.”

“From what we’ve heard at our hearings, as well as through the testimony that was submitted, people in the state really feel as though they don’t have the representation that they truly would like, in the way that the lines are drawn right now. … They feel as though the people who are elected are choosing their electorate instead of vice versa.”

In a perfect world, Ford says, “our map would line up with the one the Legislature will come up with.”

Ford concedes that it’s not likely that the Legislature will adopt the People’s Map Commission’s recommendation. “But our goal is to make an objective, nonpartisan map through this process … that will truly represent the input of the people of the state of Wisconsin.”

To that end, he encourages Wisconsinites to go to the commission’s website and submit their suggestions for how the lines should be drawn in their own communities.

Andraca’s bill creates an entity like the People’s Maps Commission, which currently has no statutory power, to allow citizens to participate in a transparent, independent process to draw legislative districts. 

‘Data science for civil rights’

Moon Duchin, a math professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts, runs the MGGG Redistricting Lab at Tufts’ Tisch College, which grew out of an informal research collective called the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group. The lab that is currently working in 10 states, including Wisconsin, to help gather public input to create fair, nonpartisan voting maps.

Duchin’s background is in geometry, which is how she got interested in voting maps. “I got sucked in by the conventional wisdom that gerrymandering is all about shapes,” she says.

She was teaching a voting theory class at Tufts in 2016 when she hit upon the idea of teaching voting districts as a topic. 

Moon Duchin (Photo courtesy of the MGGG Redistricting Lab at Tufts University)
Moon Duchin (Photo courtesy of the MGGG Redistricting Lab at Tufts University)

“I’ve been activated by how interesting the research questions are,” she says, “but also, when math and computing tools can be made tangibly useful on the ground, that’s really exciting.”

At her lab, she says, “We think of ourselves as doing data science for civil rights. We try to look for interventions you can make with technology or mathematical data science — what are some interventions that you can make towards a more fair process.”

In Wisconsin, the Tufts lab has customized its free Districtr map-drawing software and data support to the People’s Maps Commission and is helping with the process of collecting public input

“Sometimes it seems like, with redistricting, everybody’s a critic,” says Duchin. “Someone doesn’t like this line here; someone doesn’t like that line there; why couldn’t the line go this way instead of that way? When you have to draw the whole map yourself it really sensitizes you to the process and the trade-offs. We find that just as a matter of civic engagement and public education, it’s a really valuable resource to have to put district drawing right at your fingertips.”


Too often, the public is cut out of the map-drawing process, which can be extremely technical and arcane, Duchin says.

Her lab is “deeply engaged, around the country, in empowering people to take their ideas about what’s important, and connect them to a map.”

That’s also the mission of the People’s Maps Commission. 

With any maps produced by the commission alongside those of the Legislature, Duchin says, “I think it will be easier for people to compare how their communities are represented.” When the Governor created the commission, he charged it with respecting “communities of interest”—groups of citizens who share common interests, such as watersheds, school districts, and other matters of public concern. To best represent the people’s interests, line-drawers can use community narratives to help guide decisions about where to make splits and when it’s possible to keep a group together.

If the People’s Maps Commission succeeds in getting neighbors interested in the mapping project, “It gives a powerful set of alternatives that I think would have a lot of public currency,” Duchin says.

Alternative maps can be useful both in terms of illustrating a different set of lines and in illustrating a different kind of process.

“I have loved working in Wisconsin, because people are so activated,” Duchin says. “Their openness to thinking about things in fresh ways has just been a delight.”

‘Please, make our job hard’

Besides the commission itself, the Tufts Redistricting Lab has been working with little neighborhood groups, helping them map their communities. As more people call, Duchin says, “We’re stepping up so that we can be that support team for the coffee shop group or the neighborhood collective. We’re really enjoying the partnership.”

She is excited about getting more public input, she says, between now and mid-August when the new census data is expected to come out. Her hope is that there will be tons of work for the lab, as thousands, instead of dozens, of maps come in. “I’ve been telling everyone, please make our job hard,” she says. 

The People’s Maps Commission website already has a portal people can use to submit their maps, and it will keep improving as the summer comes to a close.

High stakes

“I think the stakes are democratic legitimacy stakes — very high stakes,” Duchin says. “I think you’ve got a status quo in the U.S. right now that’s very mistrustful — that’s pretty clear — and where people are pretty cynical about elections, and that cynicism is being stoked not only in the U.S. but, say, from Ukraine.”

A more transparent process, she says, would mean more people would vote, more would run for office, and more would have faith in their democracy. 

“I’m extremely motivated to help think about 21st century voting rights,” she says.

So is Andraca, who urges people to call their elected representatives and tell them to sign on to the fair maps bill, “because we’re not about Republican maps, we’re not about Democratic maps. We’re about maps that reflect the interests of communities. As an elected representative I can tell you that politicians should not be involved in drawing these lines, because it’s too tempting to try to draw a line that will give you job security for another decade.”

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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.