Senate Republicans pass last-ditch effort to institute maps that protect incumbents

By: - January 23, 2024 5:55 pm

The Wisconsin Senate meets on Jan. 23 to vote on Republicans’ proposal to institute new legislative maps. (Screenshot | WisEye)

In an attempt to bypass the Wisconsin Supreme Court, Republicans in the state Senate voted Tuesday to pass a bill that would install legislative maps aimed at protecting incumbent GOP lawmakers who were moved into new districts under maps proposed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. 

The effort was announced Monday afternoon less than 24 hours before the session was scheduled. The Senate voted on a bill, which passed the Assembly in September without a public hearing, that Republicans claimed would create an “Iowa-style” redistricting commission to draw new legislative maps for the state every decade. 

Democrats largely objected to the bill’s passage then due to complaints that it allowed for too much partisan influence on the process. A few Democrats voted for the proposal last year, saying at the time they hoped it would work to reduce the partisanship of map drawing in the state. 

Senate Republicans on Tuesday amended the bill, AB 415, to include their proposed new maps. The amendment, released just as the Senate came into session around 3 p.m., includes 169 pages largely composed of long lists of census tracts. Democrats complained that with such short notice, neither they nor the general public had enough time to analyze what the proposal actually meant for the state. 

The bill had sat in the Senate elections committee since its passage in the Assembly without receiving a public hearing and was pulled from committee as a vehicle for the amendment. 

The Senate passed the amendment on an 18-13 party line vote and passed the bill in a 17-14 vote. Sen. Joan Ballweg (R-Markesan) voted for the amendment but against the bill’s passage. Sens. Mary Felzkowski (R-Tomahawk) and Kelda Roys (D-Madison) were absent. 

Tuesday’s vote came as the state Supreme Court continues to move forward with its process of choosing new maps after it tossed out the existing maps last month on the grounds that they included districts that were unconstitutionally non-contiguous. Those maps have also been one of the strongest partisan gerrymanders in the country, allowing Republicans to retain control of the Legislature since 2011, even as Wisconsin voters have elected Democrats in several statewide races. 

Several groups have proposed maps that the Court, with the assistance of two consultants, will choose from. 

Republicans have also been fiercely contesting that decision. On Monday, they filed a motion requesting that the Supreme Court reconsider its rejection of a motion asking the Court to reconsider its initial decision. GOP officials have also promised to bring the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Most of the proposed maps, with the exception of the ones drawn by Republican lawmakers, have been projected to reduce Republican control of the Legislature from its current near-supermajority status, though an analysis by Marquette University researcher John Johnson found that the party would still be favored to win control of both chambers. 

Since the proposed maps were released, Republicans have complained that especially the maps proposed by Evers have moved many Republican incumbents into the same districts, forcing them to run primaries against each other. 

“These maps make changes that protect Republican incumbents, they move Republican incumbents who might otherwise be paired together into separate districts or into adjacent districts that they think they could win instead of ones where they think they might not,” Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) said on the Senate floor. “They do that in the Assembly. They do that in the Senate. That’s the one thing we know for certain about the amendment that’s in front of us is that it’s an incumbent protection map.” 

Under the maps proposed by the Senate Republicans on Tuesday, Sens. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green) and Andre Jacque (R-DePere) would be shielded, as would Reps. Amy Binsfeld (R-Sheboygan), Nate Gustafson (R-Fox Crossing), Bob Donovan (R-Greenfield), Robert Wittke (R-Racine), Pat Snyder (R-Schofield) and John Macco (R-Ledgeview). 

Spreitzer said Republicans were “injecting partisan politics right back into the redistricting process at a time when we have heard loud and clear from the people of Wisconsin that they want anything but. That they want fair maps, that they want nonpartisan maps, that they don’t want incumbent legislators using their power to try to protect themselves.” 

Republicans said they were only making “minor tweaks” to Evers’ proposals to defend against the governor’s “partisan attack.” 

“This amendment is the governor’s submission to the Wisconsin Supreme Court with a handful of minor tweaks,” Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R-Oostburg) said. “Fair maps advocates and the governor himself have asserted that incumbency should not be considered during the redistricting process. But in the governor’s submission, it’s clear that he considered incumbency … It was accomplished by selecting individual wards to remove popular incumbents. Our map maintains the partisan makeup of the governor’s map, but it preserves incumbents who live close to the governor’s district boundaries.” 

Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback wrote on Twitter that the effort was only about Republicans trying to hold onto their gerrymandered majority and that Tuesday’s proposal was not Evers’ maps. 

“Let’s be very clear: if Republicans today take up maps that are not the fair maps [Evers] submitted to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, then they aren’t the governor’s maps. Period,” she wrote. “This is about one thing: Republicans desperately trying to retain power. Full stop.”

The bill will now move back to the Assembly, where the amended version will need to be approved.

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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.

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