After heated debate, Senate passes GOP voting maps

One-sided floor session previews coming lawsuits

By: - November 9, 2021 7:00 am
'Voters Decide' sign in Capitol

Hundreds of people came to the Capitol on Thursday, Oct. 28 2021 to testify against the new voting maps drawn by Republican legislative leaders which advocates characterized as ‘gerrymandering 2.0’

The Wisconsin Senate passed new voting maps for legislative and Congressional districts drawn by the Legislature’s Republican majority Monday on a straight party-line vote. Gov. Tony Evers has already announced his intention to veto the Legislature’s maps.

The Senate rejected a map drawn by Democrats, which Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) mocked, saying the Democrats had devised it at the last moment on Friday, without holding a public hearing, in a nontransparent process that moved even more voters around than the “governor’s maps” — meaning the maps constructed by the nonpartisan People’s Maps Commission created by Evers.

LeMahieu criticized both the Democrats’ map and the People’s Maps Commission map for violating “traditional redistricting criteria,” including avoiding splitting municipalities and failing at “core retention” of district populations by moving people from odd to even-numbered Senate districts “so they go an additional two years without being able to vote for their state Senator.”

“Our population deviation is substantially lower,” LeMahieu said of the Republican maps.

“When the rubber meets the road, not even the Democrats support the nonpartisan redistricting process that they have spent the last 10 years claiming they support,” LeMahieu added.

But by putting forward a map that favored Democrats, the Democratic caucus also put a marker down that placed the nonpartisan People’s Maps Commission map in the center of a continuum, with the GOP-favoring map that retains gerrymandered districts drawn by the Republicans on one side, and a Democratic-leaning map on the other. That left the People’s Maps Commission map in the middle — with its slight Republican tilt that nonetheless creates more competitive districts and moves the state closer to a 50/50 partisan split. 

The final map will likely be drawn by a court, which will consider all of these examples. Federal law requires new maps be drawn every 10 years based on new Census data. 

Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye
Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye

“Yes it gives us a one-seat advantage,” Minority Leader Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) conceded of the Democratic maps. “But isn’t a 17-16 split a lot fairer than a 20-to-11 veto-proof majority?”

The Republicans’ maps, based on the 2011 gerrymander that locked in a Republican majority, give the GOP 22 out of 33 Senate seats — one more than the current 21 held by Republicans, a fact that was hammered home by speaker after speaker in the Senate debate. During the two and a half hours debate on  the new voting maps, only LeMahieu spoke for the Republican side, while the rest of his caucus sat silent as Democrat after Democrat rose to object to gerrymandering and the GOP map.

LeMahieu laid out the Republicans’ case that their map is fair to voters because it closely adheres to the existing voting map, and does not “disenfranchise” as many voters by moving them to districts with different election cycles.

Democrats shot back that the existing map is one of the worst partisan gerrymanders in the country, and Republicans are trying to confer a false legitimacy on their work of a decade ago, when they moved hundreds of thousands of voters in order to lock in a permanent GOP majority. Those maps, Democrats reminded their colleagues, were drawn by private attorneys in a locked room at a law firm and legislators signed nondisclosure agreements to keep the process secret.

“Ten years ago, lawmakers needed to move about 230,000 voters into new Senate districts but instead, Republicans moved 1.2 million voters into new districts,” Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) said. “Ten years ago, Republicans made nearly 300,000 voters wait six years to vote for state Senator.”

Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye
Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye

“They want to pretend like the current maps that we’re operating under for the last 10 years are somehow sacrosanct,” Roys added, borrowing the term “gerrylaundering” from University of Wisconsin Law School professor Robert Yablon to describe the effort to legitimize the current maps.

In the public hearing on the maps, apart from LeMahieu and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, 100% of testimony was against the Republican maps, several Democrats pointed out, with 95 speaking against the GOP maps and a total of 101 registered against it.

Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye
Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye

“The idea that this was a public process is ripped apart if you look at who showed up and who testified,” said Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee). “Zero registrations for [the GOP map]. Two appearances for — two politicians, who talked about how important it is to make sure the politicians who are here stay here,” Larson added. “What a message… So to pretend that you have the support of the public. Sounds like they’ve got another opinion.”

“My district can’t survive another 10 years of Republican gerrymandering,” said Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee). She reeled off the policy effects of voting maps that allow the majority party to ignore constituents of the minority party. 

Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye

Citing Wisconsin’s worst-in-the-nation rate of incarceration for Black adults, Johnson pointed out that alternatives to incarceration and increasing the age at which people are sent to adult prison were not included in the Republican Legislature’s budget.

Despite a plague of gun homicides in her district, “universal background checks for firearms as a way to get some of those guns off the streets of Milwaukee and preserve some of those lives: Not included in the GOP budget proposal.” 

Nor were after-school programs “to keep kids safe and engaged.”

As Johnson reeled off statistics about the higher rates of maternal mortality, premature stroke and sexually transmitted disease, Senate President Roger Roth (R-Appleton) interrupted to ask that her remarks remain relevant to the redistricting bill.

“It is. I said I was going to show examples of why I can’t support the bill,” she said. 

“Life has deteriorated for people of color over the last 10 years,” Johnson said. “These people have been purposely overlooked, forgotten.”

“We can’t even get a Black History Month resolution passed in February,” she added.

Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye
Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) Screenshot | Wisconsin Eye

Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) declared that she did not support any of the maps before the Senate, because none of them, in her view, conform to the requirements of the Voting Rights Act that minorities get adequate representation and that their votes not be “packed” together in too few districts or “cracked” and spread out among majority-white districts where they have no impact. 

Republicans were guilty of “packing” while the Democratic map “cracked” minority votes, Taylor said.

Distancing herself from her own party, Taylor said, “I agree with the competitive part of their map, but I can’t bifurcate my vote and vote for the competitive part and not for the part that doesn’t meet the VRA.”

Likewise, Taylor objected to the People’s Map Commission map, saying that it failed to create enough majority-minority districts. 

When the People’s Maps Commission map came up as an amendment, it was quickly voted down on a party-line vote, with only Taylor crossing over to vote against it with Republicans. 

Immediately LeMahieu’s office put out a press release declaring, “Senate rejects Evers’ maps with bipartisan supermajority.”

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Asked about the whether the People’s Maps Commission map conforms to the Voting Rights Act during a press conference at the Capitol on Monday, Sachin Chheda, director and co-founder of the Fair Elections Project said, “There’s a balance to be struck on competitiveness, on compactness, on breaking up municipal lines, on the Voting Rights Act requirement needs.” There are many options for drawing maps, he added, “but if you look at what the People’s Maps Commission did, they tried to strike a balance between those things. Most of the experts — some of the politicians may disagree — but most of the experts say that you have the correct number of opportunity districts for voters of color; that we will see an increase in the number of representatives of color under the People’s Maps Commission maps compared to the current maps.”

If voters of color are packed into too few districts, Chheda added, and are represented by a party that can never get a majority, “are you really reflecting the will of the voters of that district, if they can’t actually make policy by being in the majority?” 

Meanwhile, advocates are preparing for a court battle. “We are staying far away from the politics,” says attorney Doug Poland, litigation director for the progressive law firm Law Forward, which is pursuing a claim in federal court against gerrymandering as a violation of the Voting Rights Act. “We’ve recognized for a long time that the near-certainty there will be political impasse on new state legislative districts between the legislature and governor means that the courts will decide on the make-up of new districts. That is why we have been focused since the beginning of our litigation efforts on representing the interests of nonprofit groups and individual voters to ensure that the districts ultimately adopted in Wisconsin are fair, and provide fair representation for communities of color in our state Legislature.”

The Assembly will take up redistricting in its floor session on Thursday.

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Ruth Conniff
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.

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