First shots in the redistricting wars come with census data arrival

By: - August 13, 2021 5:07 am
United States Census 2020 art form

United States Census 2020 art form Getty Images

Thursday’s release of the delayed census data for each state was the official kickoff of the redistricting process — and officials and groups throughout Wisconsin reacted less to the new information and more to the battles about to ignite as the process of drawing legislative maps gets underway. 

Redistricting takes place every 10 years as a way to make certain that as populations grow, shrink or demographics change, individuals will have equal voice and representation in their various levels of government. In addition to population, data includes such information as race, ethnicity, housing situation, voting-age population and community.

Population changes have the greatest impact on where congressional and legislative boundaries need to change. 

Between 2010 and 2020, Wisconsin’s growth rate was 3.6%, which was not enough to gain or lose a seat in Congress — a fact that was known when the initial data came out in April. However, Democratic Rep. Ron Kind’s announcement this week that he will retire after 26 years has put a focus on the western Wisconsin district that has been the most competitive in the state, which Republicans are looking to win in order to take back control of the House.

Rep. Ron Kind in front of American Flag
U.S. Rep. Ron Kind (official portrait)

U.S. Census Bureau’s acting director, Ron Jarmin, made note of nationwide trends on the bureau’s website, including a 9% increase of population in metro areas over a decade ago, which means that 86% of the U.S. population is now living in metropolitan areas. Wisconsin also followed this trend.

Wisconsin’s white population is the 12th highest in the country at 80.4%, a drop from the 2010 census when 86.2% of the population was white alone. The counties with the highest percentage of residents of color are Menomonee County (86% Native American), Milwaukee County (52% white) and Racine (72% white).

When it comes to age, 78% of Wisconsin residents are 18 or over, which is on par with the national average. However, since the last census 10 years ago, the number of children in Wisconsin under 18 has dropped by 4% while the adult population has increased by 6%.

The politics of redistricting prevailed over statistics in terms of a community response to Thursday’s news.

The League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, which has closely watched the process for many years, sent out a statement promising  to continue that vigilance and push for fair districts. Executive Director Debra Cronmiller stressed that districts determine more than representation, saying in a statement that “these new districts determine the allocation of funding for schools, hospitals, public transport, and other essential services.”

But her keenest concern was for fair maps. “To preserve a fair and open democracy, we must ensure that every voter and every community is given an equal voice,” said Cronmiller. “No matter our color, background, or zip code, we can all agree that voters pick our leaders, our leaders should not pick their voters. Lawmakers should not be allowed to rig the process in their own favor for the next decade.”

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Battles during the last redistricting process went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in Gill v. Whitford, a lawsuit that did not change the maps, although plaintiffs in the court documents labeled Wisconsin’s 2011 gerrymander as one of the most egregious in the country over the last half century. The Legislature, for the past decade, has been held up as proof of how bad the gerrymandering is, because Democrats received around half the votes in legislative elections but hold roughly one-third of the seats. In 2020 they got 47% of the votes in the Assembly and Senate to hold just 38 of 99 seats in the Assembly and 12 of 33 seats in the Senate. 

Advocates for fair redistricting state that factors that should have determined boundaries in 2011, such as municipal boundaries and communities with shared concerns, were given lower priority than political partisan ambition.

The National Democratic Redistricting Committee, led by former Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under former President Barack Obama, calculated that in Wisconsin Democrats won more than half of the congressional vote last year, while Republicans hold 5 out of 8, or two-thirds of the congressional seats. Holder has made a number of visits to Wisconsin and spoke at the first meeting of the People’s Maps Commission, a group assembled by Gov. Tony Evers to draft redistricting maps. His presence, however, led to Republican charges that it was not a fair, nonpartisan group. 

Eric Holder (By United States Department of Justice, public domain)
Eric Holder (By United States Department of Justice, public domain)

“For too long Wisconsinites have had to reside in one of the most gerrymandered states in the country,” said Elizabeth Treviño, Wisconsin state director for NDRC. “Wisconsin is a true swing state and the state’s congressional and state legislative districts should reflect that reality with maps that enable both parties to win roughly half the seats. The people deserve maps that empower them to hold their elected officials accountable.”

Thursday’s release of raw data will be put on-line in an easier to use format by Sept. 30, according to the Census Bureau.

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, said his group is looking for a more transparent process than in 2011, when Republicans controlled all branches of government and the maps were drafted behind the scenes and at private law firms. 

“While this process has historically been conducted behind closed doors with little to no public input, 2021 is our year to flip the script and ensure that the voices of our communities, particularly those of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander and other communities of color are at the center of the conversation,” said Heck in a statement. “Fair maps mean the politicians must work to earn every vote in every corner of the district because we the people get to choose our elected representatives, not the other way around.”

The Fair Elections Project stated similar goals for the redistricting process that would result in fair representation. Director Sachin Chheda called for legislators to follow the People’s Maps Commission recommendations. His group has called for Wisconsin to adopt a bill in the Legislature based on the “Iowa Model” of nonpartisan redistricting, which Republicans in the state Legislature have rejected and never permitted to have a public hearing.

“The people of Wisconsin will refuse to accept politicians choosing their voters in the name of ‘politics as usual,’ said Chheda in a statement. “These maps determine the funding for our schools, hospitals, roads, and so much more for the next decade, and a supermajority of Wisconsinites are demanding an open redistricting process.”

Resolutions demanding fair, independent maps won solid majorities in referendum votes or have been  approved by county boards in 56 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, which represent more than 83% of all Wisconsin residents. 

While the Marquette poll released this week did not have a question on redistricting, in a poll from early 2019, 72% of registered voters indicated they would prefer that a nonpartisan commission draw the boundaries, with just 18% opting for the Legislature and governor to draw the maps, as is currently the case. However, the divided control of state government may mean that the courts will end up drawing the lines, although there has been a Republican-backed effort to move the issue to the conservative-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court, which most frequently sides with Republicans.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos expressed exasperation with President Joe Biden over the census data having been delayed, although the reason behind the hold-up is widely viewed as the pandemic, and the census process began under former President Donald Trump.

“I’m glad the Biden Administration has finally gotten the data to us after dragging their feet for months,” Vos said in a statement. “Soon we will begin the robust map drawing process and I’m confident we will draw a map that the governor will sign.”

Speaker Robin Vos gives his State of the State response 1/12/21 (WisEye)
Speaker Robin Vos (WisEye)

He announced that the Legislature has a website for the public to submit maps of any variety — statewide, regional or community of interest. Map submissions will be accepted from Sept. 1 – Oct. 15.

Chheda reacted to Vos’ announcement with a backhanded compliment, stating that years of public demand for transparency and input have moved the Republican leader, “and now even Speaker Vos recognizes how his maps will be seen as illegitimate if he didn’t at least nod to our concerns.”

Nationwide, according to the New York Times, Republicans have the advantage in redistricting: “Democrats failed to make significant gains in state legislative contests last year, leaving Republicans with complete control over the redistricting process in 20 states. Democrats control the process in just 10 states, and there are divided governments in four. The rest rely on nonpartisan or bipartisan entities to draw political maps, or only have one congressional district in the state. That gives Republicans unimpeded control to draw 187 House districts, and Democrats 84.”

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Melanie Conklin
Melanie Conklin

Melanie Conklin is proud to be a native of the state of Wisconsin, which gave humankind the typewriter, progressivism and deep-fried cheese curds. Her several decades in journalism include political beats and columns at Isthmus newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal and other publications. When not an ink-stained wretch, she served time inside state, local and federal government in communications. She is excited to be back at the craft of journalism as Deputy Editor of the Wisconsin Examiner. It’s what she’s loved ever since getting her master’s degree in journalism from the UW-Madison. Her family includes one husband, two kids, four dogs and five (or more) chinchillas.

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