Legislature’s mystery redistricting bill drafted by Vos and Republican political players

The rushed measure was actually drafted in March and finalized in April

Two red hands in suit coat cuffs draw red lines on a redistricting map in red pen to represent corporate gerrymandering
Redistricting by Truthout.org (Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A surprise redistricting bill was rushed to a public hearing Monday even before most people who are closely watching redistricting were aware it existed, let alone had a chance to analyze it. 

The bill extended the timeline for redistricting in Wisconsin, based on a delay in census data, and Republicans described it as a noncontroversial, technical fix that came from the Wisconsin Counties Association. At the hearing, the group took credit for writing the proposal. 

An unusual aspect of the measure was that there was no author listed on the Assembly or Senate versions of it.

The drafting notes used to draw up the legislation tell a different story — one that is not so benign as local government groups simply requesting more time to draw district lines.

Speaker Robin Vos at 11/17/20 news conference
Speaker Robin Vos

The drafting note file — used by the Legislative Reference Bureau to write a bill — contains a memo from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos requesting the bill be drafted. More detailed instructions came from Vos staffer Joe Handrick, a former Republican legislator and one of the architects of the 2011 rigged maps that a federal judge described as among the most gerrymandered in the country. In addition to serving as Vos’ “outreach director” according to his Linkedin resume, Handrick is also the current director of the new conservative policy group, “Common Sense Wisconsin.” 

Others involved behind the scenes on the bill are GOP stalwarts, strategists and lawyers who have been active in Republican politics. One party on the emails attached to the drafting notes was Jessie Augustyn, who was on former Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s staff and who also represented Fitzgerald as his attorney in election lawsuits as well as lawsuits brought by Jere Fabick fighting Gov. Tony Evers’ emergency public health orders. Augustyn also works with The Federalist Society.

Andrew Phillips, who is representing the Wisconsin Counties Association as outside counsel, represented Vos and 13 other Assembly Republicans who were sued in 2019 for refusing to disclose information under the state open records laws.

As the Wisconsin Examiner reported, the bill ostensibly was forwarded because the counties are supposed to finish their maps no later than July 1, but the federal census data — which normally arrives in March — is delayed until mid-August or September.  That makes moving the date necessary.

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The proposed bill  retains a change made in 2011 that slows down the process, however,  forcing local governments to redraft their maps if they don’t fit with the districts drawn by the Legislature.  And it dramatically extends the timeline for redistricting, which would keep the old gerrymandered maps — that locked in Republican control of the Legislature — in place long past their expiration date.

“Holding local elections in districts everyone knows are not properly apportioned is questionable,” said Mike Browne, deputy director of the progressive research group A Better Wisconsin Together. “That some of the key players behind it are the same ones who were behind one of the most egregious examples of gerrymandering in the nation — the Wisconsin state legislative districts — only raises more red flags.”

Not such a rush

The bill was pushed to a public hearing on Monday, but drafting notes indicate that the request to have it drafted was made on March 16 — nearly three months ago. Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu’s staff person Brian Radday also sent an email suggestion, which Handrick apologized to the Legislative Reference Bureau for forwarding at the last minute after they said they were all done. This was on April 26.

Sen. Devin LeMahieu

The bill went through a number of different revisions, but the one presented as something new that needed to be acted on immediately so it could be voted on next Wednesday in the Assembly was drafted, reviewed, submitted and jacketed (the process of crafting a bill) by April 27.

“We would like to get a bill draft that addresses the local redistricting timeline (in reaction to a delay of receipt of US census data until the end of September),” wrote Handrick on March 17 to  Joseph T. Kreye, senior coordinating attorney at the Legislative Reference Bureau.

Handrick attached proposed language, a “timeline and flow chart” and some illustrations to “show how the state and local process would work.”

“Below I’ve outlined the desired goals for this bill,” wrote Handrick and in bold print he added, “If you believe the language as presented does not achieve these goals, please let me know.”

His goals include that the Feb. 2022 primary and the April 22 spring elections “would be held in the existing districts.” He lays out the timeline and adds that new wards must be put in place between April 15 and May 15, after the April election but before the August 22 primary.

Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, made it to the public hearing to testify despite its last minute announcement. He says delaying redistricting sets a “very dangerous precedent,” made worse by how “terribly rigged” the 2011 maps are to favor Republicans.

Matthew Rothschild

With the drafting notes now coming to light, Rothschild says, “From the drafting notes it’s clear that this bill has got GOP fingerprints all over it, and that the GOP leadership was very much involved in the crafting of this bill. It wasn’t just some innocent bill put together by civic-minded county personnel. It was a partisan bill constructed with the direct involvement of the leaders of the Republican Legislature and other Republican figures who were involved in the gerrymandering back in 2011, so that is reason enough for us to be even more skeptical of these bills.”

Rothschild predicted that if Republican leadership uses this process to keep the old maps around even further, “there will be a huge uproar here in Wisconsin.”

Vos’ office declined to comment for this story.