Democrats and members of the public criticize Republicans’ ‘Iowa-style’ redistricting plan

First public hearing on bill to change how voting maps are drawn

By: - October 20, 2023 5:45 am

Sen. Dan Knodl, Rep. Travis Tranel, Rep. Loren Oldenburg and Rep. Joel Kitchens spoke on their redistricting bill on Thursday. (Baylor Spears | Wisconsin Examiner)

Democratic lawmakers and members of the public said Republicans’ current proposal to implement an “Iowa-style” legislative redistricting process in Wisconsin falls short of what is needed during the first official hearing on the bill Thursday.

The hearing by the Senate Shared Revenue, Elections and Consumer Protection committee is the first on AB 415, which would put the responsibility for drawing new maps in the hands of the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB) and would also establish a redistricting advisory commission to assist with the process. Assembly Republicans, joined by Democratic Rep. LaKeshia Myers of Milwaukee, already passed the bill with some amendments last month during a late-night vote just two days after Republicans announced the plan, without holding a public hearing.

Democrats and some Republicans have proposed bills to reform Wisconsin’s redistricting process since 2010. However, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and the majority of Republicans have refused to support such proposals — or to allow a public hearing — until recently. 

The sudden position change came after the new liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging the current legislative maps.

“This bill coming forward is really an attempt that we can, perhaps, avoid ending up in litigation and keep it truly a legislative process with a non-partisan commission,” Sen. Dan Knodl (R-Germantown) said. “Our state is continually bogged down [in] litigation [with] uncertainty regarding legislative redistricting [in] the courts. This bill eliminates those burdensome costs and dilatory actions.” 

The Republican authors of the bill insisted on Thursday that this will be lawmakers’ only chance to change the state’s redistricting process.

Knodl said he was aware of how “political winds” could change and that he thought Democrats and Republicans should come together to deal with the divisive issue and show Wisconsinites that they can govern together.

Rep. Loren Oldenburg (R-Viroqua) said that if a new process doesn’t happen now, then “none of us will live long enough to see it happen in Wisconsin.” 

Democrats, however, have criticized the Republican bill, saying it’s a way for Republicans to subvert a potential state Supreme Court decision against the current voting map, which heavily favors them, and that it lacks protections against more  gerrymandering by Republicans in the Legislature.  

Under the current version of the bill, the LRB would be required to draw the maps based on several criteria and in accordance with several standards. During the map drawing process, the redistricting commission would assist the LRB by providing direction and holding eight hearings including one in Milwaukee, one in Madison and one in northern Wisconsin on proposed plans.

The LRB would submit its plan to the Legislature, which would vote to approve or reject the maps by a simple majority.  If lawmakers reject the plans, the LRB would redraw the maps taking into account reasons that they were rejected. The Legislature would then vote on the second version. If rejected again, the maps would go through the same process until a plan was approved. 

Legislators would not be allowed to amend the bills at any time except for a “purely corrective nature.” The original version of the bill would have allowed lawmakers to amend the bill on the third plan, but that was removed by an amendment. The bill now sets a deadline of Jan. 31 of the even-numbered year following the census, after which no plan can be considered

Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) noted that this would mean that maps could not be implemented until the 2030 election cycle. He also criticized the bill because, he said, the Legislature could reject plans until they land on one that could potentially favor the majority party.

“If you draw 100 maps, one of them is going to favor Republicans, one of them is going to favor Democrats,” Spreitzer said. “That’s just random chance.” 

The authors said that they intend for new maps to be applicable for the 2024 election cycle and would be open to changing the deadline.

Spreitzer also questioned an amendment adopted by the Assembly that would require that a plan could only be approved by a bipartisan vote. He also asked why the authors left out a provision included in Democratic lawmakers’ 2019 and 2021 redistricting bills that would have required a third plan to receive approval from three-quarters of lawmakers. 

“Nothing in this bill guarantees that we get a fair map,” Spreitzer said. “A bipartisan requirement means one person liked their district and decided to vote for it, and given the Republican supermajority we have in the [Senate] and nearly in the [Assembly], why did you pull out that three-fourths requirement?”

Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay) said that the deadline included in the bill would function to limit the number of times lawmakers could reject maps and said a three-quarters requirement wasn’t a “realistic threshold.” 

Sen. Romaine Quinn also brought up concerns that the three-quarters provision “could empower nine senators” to hold up the redistricting process.

Democrats and members of the public said that there is a lack of trust in Republicans and their proposal, lending to opposition to and critiques of the current bill.

“I don’t trust you. I honestly do not trust the Republican majority to work for the people of Wisconsin,” one Green Bay resident said during the hearing. “You need to get our trust, and these two bills as written do not do that” 

Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick) noted Democrats did not implement a nonpartisan redistricting process during the 2008 session when they last held power and said that that’s why he knows there needs to be a “tamper-proof process.” He also noted Republicans’ redistricting process in 2011 when lawmakers were sworn to secrecy and told to ignore public comment during the process. 

“Do you believe that the public trusts the Legislature to continue to be the manufacturer of redistricting?” Smith asked the bill authors. 

Rep. Travis Tranel (R-Cuba City), who has supported nonpartisan redistricting since he entered office in 2010, said that he thought when people “hear one party say that they were for something for a decade and now they’re suddenly against it, that’s probably where we have some trust issues.”

Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause Wisconsin, said his organization opposes the plan. 

“A month ago, there was no, even, inkling that most Republican members of the Legislature were supportive of redistricting reform,” Heck said. “So, the matter of believability and trust, I think, really comes into play here as we begin this process.” 

Heck said the nonpartisan redistricting process has worked in Iowa because Democrats and Republicans talk to each other, there was broad buy-in and confidence in the plan and because there is a history of bipartisan cooperation in that state. He said that track record doesn’t exist in Wisconsin. 

Smith also asked lawmakers about some of the criteria required for legislative districts in the bill. Republicans’ bill includes language that says that a “district containing detached portions of a municipality is legally contiguous even if the area around the detached portion of the municipality is part of a different district.” 

The Wisconsin Constitution requires legislative districts to “consist of contiguous territory” — it’s one of the provisions that is the basis for the lawsuit challenging the current maps.

“Your bill says detached portions of a municipality are considered legally contiguous. Detached and contiguous are antonyms. They are not the same,” Smith said. “So explain to me how detached portions of a municipality would be considered legally contiguous in your bill?” 

Kitchens in his response said it didn’t matter what they thought because “we’re not the one’s drawing the maps.” He added that the maps would be produced by LRB.

Gov. Tony Evers has criticized the bill and would likely veto it should it pass the Senate.


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Baylor Spears
Baylor Spears

Baylor Spears is a staff reporter for the Wisconsin Examiner. She’s previously written for the Minnesota Reformer and Washingtonian Magazine. A Tennessee-native, she graduated with a degree in journalism from Northwestern University in June 2022.