Republican legislators push for redistricting advantage

GOP desire to minimize boundary changes in stark contrast to their 2011 actions

By: and - September 28, 2021 6:17 pm
Woman in Fair Maps Now shirt carrying sign reading: Our Vote. Our Voice. Our Choice.

Photo by Becker1999 Paul via Flickr CC BY 2.0

Court battles surrounding redistricting have taken center stage, but on Tuesday Republican legislative leaders set forth a list of policies they believe should guide the process that takes place once every 10 years based on new census data on population. 

The resolution authored by Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos declares that one of the core concepts in redistricting should be to diverge from the current districts as little as possible. Doing so could secure their power for another decade by retaining boundaries that are cited as among the most gerrymandered in the nation. 

Republicans who were in full control of state government when districts were last drawn in 2011 secured a 10-year electoral advantage by making significant changes to the district lines, moving millions of Wisconsinites into new districts that were designed to augment their power.

Sen. Melissa Agard by Erik Gunn

“What’s happening is the Senate and the Assembly are going on record to formalize gerrymandering — something none of us should be proud of,” said Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison).  “We are debating how to keep those in power in power, as opposed to how we listen and react to the people of our districts. … You are going forward with impunity and power, as opposed to with a moral compass.”

In both the Assembly and Senate, Democrats forwarded a substitute measure to take up a nonpartisan redistricting bill at its next meeting. Both were voted down by Republicans. Moments later, the resolution from LeMahieu and Vos, stating that currently gerrymandered districts advantaging Republicans be kept to as close to their current form as possible, passed 19-12 in the Senate along the same party lines. The resolution passed the Assembly on a 60-38 party-line vote.

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) said that the way Wisconsin maps would be drawn under the GOP resolution was akin letting whatever football team was up at half-time make up rules that would be observed for the rest of the game. “We could start at the 40 yard line and make the other team start at the 10. We can make our field goals count for five, their’s for two — the other team wins because it was rigged. It would be a lousy thing to watch.”

The amendment from Democrats that was rejected is the nonpartisan redistricting bill authored by Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick). He said that what people really don’t like about politics is the extremism and the fact that measures popular with the public don’t stand a chance under gerrymandered maps. 

Sen. Jeff Smith

“We are long overdue for Wisconsin lawmakers to properly reflect the will of the voters,” said Smith. “It’s about the soul of our state. Gerrymandered maps make life easier for politicians. They silence voters with unaccountable elected officials who cruise to victory … Gerrymandering creates lazy, unaccountable legislators who serve as long as they want.”

Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) dared legislators to try to draw districts that are as close to reflecting the 50-50 partisan split that makes Wisconsin a purple swing state in which both Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson are elected to the U.S. Senate. He predicted there would be much greater bipartisanship with fewer extremists on both sides if gerrymandering did not create such “safe” districts for legislators that the only election they actually worried about was a primary. 

“Majorities on either side, whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, should never be this comfortable with the majority,” argued Erpenbach. He objected to leaders being involved in redistricting at all — or even legislators, saying that “Drawing our own maps is like grading our own tests.”

Republicans did not observe the rules they now want instituted when it came to redistricting in 2011 when they moved millions of voters into new districts to secure what many describe as a permanent majority in the Legislature. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Patrick Marley reported that Republicans moved nearly 2.4 million voters into new Assembly districts, and in the Senate, although they would have needed to move about 230,000 voters into new districts, they instead moved 1.2 million people. He cited testimony in court from UW-Madison political science professor Ken Mayer, who described the shift of 719 times more voters than they would have needed to move in the Ozaukee County area.


Even before the results of the 2020 census were released and lawsuits seeking to move the redistricting process to state and federal courts were filed, legislative Republicans sought — over the vocal objections of Democrats — to move back the deadlines for drawing new maps, which would keep the current gerrymandered districts in place for the 2022 elections. Rep. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) said Republicans were once again placing their partisan goals over the desires of Wisconsin voters. 

“Just three months ago, we were here talking about a different rushed redistricting item,” Spreitzer said. “And back then you said, ‘trust us, we’re not doing anything nefarious.’ Well, this resolution is a perfect reminder why we and the people of Wisconsin will not and cannot trust the majority party when it comes to districting.” 

“Republicans say they want fewer redistricting changes,” he added. “But a decade ago, they moved millions of voters into new districts. This resolution reeks of hypocrisy when compared to what Republicans did a decade ago. This latest resolution is just more of the same, trying to cling to power and saying anything you can in order to come up with a justification for doing that.”

Speaker Robin Vos at a virtual press conference on March 25, 2020
Speaker Robin Vos

But Vos continued to insist the resolution just lays out the baseline for how the process will move forward, and that because Republicans will pass what they want anyway, Democrats should just accept it. 

“So the resolution before us is simple,” Vos said. “It basically reiterates what current law is, what current constitutional theory is and gives a clear guidance to the folks who are going to submit maps over the course of the next month or two, as we try to put together a map that we will ultimately bring to the Legislature through a series of options where we’ll have public hearings, we’ll let people have their say, just as we do on every bill that comes before the Legislature with the hope that Gov. Evers acting in good faith isn’t going to say that no matter what we do, he’s a no.”

Vos continued, telling Democrats, “So hopefully, you won’t just continue to take the no way, no how, never route, which is kind of where you’ve been before and accept the fact that this resolution lays out the principles that we are going to utilize to ensure that we have a map that will last during the next 10 years just like the last one has during the past decade.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.

Henry Redman
Henry Redman

Henry Redman is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner who focuses on covering Wisconsin's towns and rural areas. He previously covered crime and courts at the Daily Jefferson County Union. A lifelong Midwesterner, he was born in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a degree in journalism in May 2019.