Redistricting debate begins with a rushed GOP plan in the Legislature

Could a mystery bill keep current gerrymandered maps in place into 2024?

Madison voting
The Wisconsin Capitol on spring election day, April 7, 2020. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)

On Monday morning the Senate’s government operations committee took up a bill to change the timeline for redrawing Wisconsin’s political maps at the county and municipal levels. 

It was the first legislative hearing in what is sure to be a fraught, high-stakes debate over redistricting. The next set of voting maps will replace the gerrymandered maps that heavily favor Republicans drawn by the Legislature’s Republican majority and signed by then-Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, after the last census in 2010.

The maps must be redrawn every 10 years when new federal census data comes out.

Under current law, the redistricting occurs in multiple phases after each census, beginning at the local level. First, counties must adopt tentative county supervisory district plans within 60 days of receiving the census data. Then municipalities have 60 days to adjust ward boundaries. Then counties have another 60 days to finalize their plans based on the new municipal wards.

Only after the local maps are drawn do the state and Congressional redistricting processes get underway.

But given the current federal census delay, all of the usual deadlines are thrown off. The counties are supposed to finish their initial plans no later than July 1. But federal census data, which usually comes out by the end of March, has been delayed until at least August 15, and might not arrive until September.

Because the 2020 census data has been delayed, moving the deadlines for redistricting has become necessary. But the debate got heated over whether the bill was merely an innocuous change — or whether it unjustly extends the life of the old gerrymandered maps that heavily favor Republicans in the Legislatures for several more years — until the 2023 primary and 2024 general elections, under the bill.

Ostensibly, Senate Bill 385 merely addresses the need to move back deadlines to accommodate the census delay. 

Gerrymandered maps get an extension

But opponents, including the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, League of Women Voters and the NAACP, say the proposed changes would keep the old, gerrymandered maps in place for an unnecessarily long time. This would continue lopsided Republican domination, as well as disenfranchising voters in parts of the state that have seen large population increases, such as Dane County. 

And there is another hitch in this bill. It specifically retains a 2011 rule change that allows the Wisconsin Legislature to force local maps to be redrawn to conform to redistricting at the state level. 

The bill “doesn’t do one good thing,” Greg Jones of the Wisconsin NAACP testified at the Monday hearing. The NAACP is concerned about the six months the bill gives counties to complete the redistricting process, keeping the old maps in place until the 2023 primaries and 2024 general elections. Committee members should consider whether voters will be disenfranchised. “We have to be concerned about the citizenry,” he said.

The proposed law is “forcing communities to continue to endure the consequences of the 2011 rigged maps,” Matthew Rothschild, director of the Democracy Campaign, testified during the hearing. By keeping the old maps in place until 2024, the redistricting plan would violate the constitutional principle of “one person one vote,” and would surely end up in court, he added. “You’re setting yourself up for a lawsuit here, with Wisconsin taxpayers having to foot the bill once again,” Rothschild told the committee.

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‘It would be nice to have more time’

Instead of extending the period under which the old maps continue to be in effect, Rothschild testified that the Legislature should consider pushing back spring elections until June and give counties 30 days — not the six months specified in the bill — to draw their new maps once the census data becomes available. 

Because the bill gives control over the final shape of local districts to the Legislature, Rothschild called it “top-down” and a violation of local control.

But committee chair Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) argued that the bill was, in fact, a “bottom-up” effort to put in place changes to deadlines that local officials had requested. “The counties are asking us to change the deadlines,” he noted.

The Wisconsin Counties Association approached Stroebel and other Republican legislators with the bill language. The bill was introduced on Friday, with no named sponsors apart from the government operations committee itself, and referred to the committee for a hearing on Monday. Rothschild and Dane County Clerk Scott McDonell, representing the Wisconsin County Clerks Association, who also testified against the bill, objected to the short notice. 

“Well, it would have been nice to have more time, but the feds got us the census data late,” said Stroebel.

After Rothschild, McDonell and Jones spoke in opposition to the bill, members of the Wisconsin Counties Association spoke in favor. 

“Thank you so much for putting this bill forward, members of the committee — we really appreciate it,” Marcie Rainbolt of the Wisconsin Counties Association testified. County officials across the state have been worried about the delayed census data, she said. “We need help in order to get the local redistricting done and done correctly. And so the best that we can ask for is to move redistricting to 2022.”

‘I just about lost my breakfast’

Rainbolt told the committee that Gov. Tony Evers’ office was not concerned about the bill. “We did have a conversation with the governor’s chief legal counsel and at the time, when we discussed this bill with that staff member, they told us they saw no red flags with the legislation,” she said.

That came as a surprise to Rothschild, who commented after the hearing that “I was aghast at that. I just about lost my breakfast,” when he heard that the governor’s office saw no red flags.

It also seemed to be a bit of a surprise to the Evers’ office.  Britt Cudaback, Evers’ spokesperson said, “Our office is reviewing the legislation” and “If it is going to make it harder for folks to cast their ballot or to have fair maps in Wisconsin it’s a nonstarter.”

The Counties Association’s general counsel, Andy Phillips, described the bill as “the most innocuous piece of legislation I’ve ever seen in my life,” and expressed surprise at the opposition. He warned that “rushing through the process” of redistricting would mean disrupting deadlines for leadership elections and would short-circuit public input.

Fond du Lac County Clerk Lisa Freiburg testified that pushing back spring elections to June would disrupt school board races and the August partisan primary. “Elections are set for a reason and elections need to stay on that schedule,” she said.

Freiburg, Phillips and Rainbolt were joined by Mark Wadium, a lobbyist for Outagamie County, who agreed that it was unrealistic to ask counties to draw maps within 30 days.

Getting public input

“The only way you could compress that timeline that much would be to violate all the rules and laws on public notice and public participation,” Wadium said. “The issue is not sitting down at the computer and drawing the lines, the issue is given the public time for their input.”

Rothschild found that incredible. “Who needs six months in this day and age?” he said after the hearing. Computer mapping programs could speed things up and the public could be present for the entire process, he added. He also worries about the precedent set by using delayed census data as an excuse to hold onto the old, gerrymandered maps. “What if the Legislature says let’s use the 2011 maps” for legislative elections?

When Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) asked whether local officials could start drawing maps using the most current population data from 2019, and then make adjustments using the 2020 census data, Rainbolt replied that it would be impossible to start drawing maps without the 2020 census data.

But that, in fact, is what groups of citizens have been doing through a public input process launched by Evers’ People’s Maps Commission, which has been connecting local citizens with free software that allows them to draw maps based on “communities of interest” —  groups of citizens who share common interests, such as watersheds, school districts and other matters of public concern. The census data is not as important as understanding what those communities of interest look like, says Tufts University professor Moon Duchin, who has been consulting with Wisconsin on gathering public input and helping citizens to draw their own maps.

McDonell, who as Dane County clerk represents the fastest growing county in the state, said it would be possible to finish the process within 30 days of receiving census data, with a robust public input process, and by using technology that makes map-drawing efficient. 

For counties like Dane, not redrawing the map would mean disenfranchising whole neighborhoods that have sprung up since the last census 10 years ago, he added.

People have a big stake in how their districts are drawn, McDonell said. He used the example of Mt. Horeb and DeForest— two communities of about the same size. Mt. Horeb is represented by a single Assembly district. DeForest, in contrast, was broken into three Assembly districts and had its representatives scattered, after the redistricting process of 2011.

“From an administrative point of view, it’s important that cities and counties draw the wards because they understand the communities of interests that are in those communities,” McDonell testified. 

Referring to the secret, partisan redistricting process of 10 years ago, he added: “None of that happens in the backroom of a law firm with a nondisclosure agreement.”

Simpler solutions

Mel Barnes, an attorney with the progressive law firm Law Forward who follows gerrymandering and democracy issues, calls the bill a “bizarre and dramatic” way of dealing with the deadline pressure created by the delayed census data.

“There are simpler solutions they don’t seem to have entertained,” she says. These include adjusting deadlines for redrawing the maps to shorten the 60 day timeline, which, she says, is a lot easier than it used to be. “The actual work does look a lot different than it did even 10 years ago,” she says.

Another solution would be for the Legislature to give more money to the overworked local clerks who need to oversee the redrawing of the maps. Finally, the Legislature could “eliminate the step added in 2011 where the local government has to go back and revise wards after the state and Congressional districts are drawn.”

If Wisconsin returned to using local maps as building blocks for the state and federal districts, it would not only restore local control, it would save time and work, Barnes points out.

“The idea of delaying the process does not seem like a feasible option to us,” she she says. “We have to get redistricting done. We can’t just keep holding elections using the old maps.” 

Sounding like she’s laying out an argument for a future law suit, Barnes adds, “There’s a reason we do redistricting. We do have to draw new districts to meet Constitutional requirements and to make sure people have representation.”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. 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. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.