Our state constitution requires that legislative and congressional maps be redrawn every 10 years, based on the latest census data. The State Legislature has not yet introduced a map since the release of the 2020 Census data, but redistricting has already been the source of much debate.
It seems obvious that Wisconsinites should be choosing their elected officials, not the other way around. However, our current gerrymandered maps limit the ability of all voters to have their voices heard.
During the last redistricting process in 2011, hundreds of thousands of voters were moved out of their legislative districts and into new ones for political gain. Public comments were ignored and the process entirely lacked the transparency that is owed to the people of Wisconsin when it comes to something as serious as their votes. Legal bills resulting from the heavily gerrymandered maps that were created cost Wisconsin taxpayers millions of dollars. All in, this was a process and a result that none of us should want to repeat. However, 10 years later, taxpayers are again footing the bill for political arguments over redistricting.
Earlier this year, Republican legislative leaders signed contracts with law firms to spend $1 million or more in legal fees at taxpayers’ expense for anticipated lawsuits over the redistricting process. These contracts were dissolved by the Dane County Circuit Court but later reinstated by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. I was and continue to be greatly opposed to this irresponsible use of hard-earned taxpayer dollars. When elected officials focus all their energy and resources on staying in power, the people who elected them are those who will suffer.
Despite the fact that the maps have not yet been made, lawsuits have also already been filed regarding who should step in if Governor Evers and the Legislature cannot agree on the maps. Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court agreed to accept a Republican lawsuit regarding the redistricting process that asked the court to assist in the drawing of Wisconsin’s maps should the governor reject the Legislature’s maps. In addition, federal judges recently refused to dismiss a Wisconsin redistricting lawsuit which was brought forth by Democratic voters. Two lawsuits on the issue were combined into one, which includes a request that the federal court draw new maps if state leaders cannot agree. The trial date for this federal case is currently scheduled in January.
While the redistricting process has already become complicated, it really should be quite simple. Our districts must be truly representative of our communities so our election results reflect the will of the people. Having maps that are biased towards one political party means that those in power are picking and choosing which voices are heard, and that means our democracy is not functioning the way it should. It is imperative that we update our redistricting process so it can be non-partisan, fair, and transparent. Action must be taken to address this issue so heavily gerrymandered districts are no longer created at the expense of Wisconsin residents.
Governor Evers launched redistricting reform in 2020 when he announced that he would be creating a non-partisan redistricting commission. The People’s Maps Commission was established as a result, comprised entirely of Wisconsin residents rather than elected officials. This group held a series of public hearings throughout the state where they received input from Wisconsinites on the redistricting process. This was an excellent opportunity for the voices of the people to be heard and for our map-drawing process to be made more transparent.
In his 2021-23 biennial budget proposal, the governor included a provision that would have required the Legislature to accept the maps proposed by the People's Maps Commission, which were based on the public input it received. This should have been a provision that received widespread support from all of my colleagues in the Legislature, as it amplified the opinions of Wisconsin residents. I supported Governor Evers’ efforts to make our maps and map-drawing process fair. Sadly, this provision was removed from the budget by Republicans on the Joint Committee on Finance and was not included in the final version of the budget.
This legislative session, I was proud to sign on as a co-author of Assembly Bill 395 (AB 395) and Senate Bill 389 (SB 389), companion proposals that would create a new procedure for preparing legislative and congressional redistricting plans, call on the Legislative Reference Bureau to draw redistricting plans based on standards laid out in the legislation, and establish a Redistricting Advisory Commission. I am confident that this legislation would improve the fairness of our redistricting process and would be a step in the right direction for Wisconsin. These bills were referred to their respective Assembly and Senate committees back in June and, unfortunately, have yet to receive a public hearing.
It is extremely disappointing that these efforts to create a fair redistricting process have not even been brought forth for a discussion, while Assembly Joint Resolution 80 (AJR 80), which was just introduced on September 23rd, was scheduled immediately for a legislative vote on September 28th. It was passed by Republicans in both houses. AJR 80 includes clauses that make it the policy of Wisconsin to keep districts as similar as possible to how they are currently and avoid redistricting incumbents out of their districts. These guidelines contradict what was permitted in 2011, now that the current maps benefit the majority party.
Regardless of where you live, you should have an equal say in our democracy. Partisan gerrymandering hurts Wisconsinites. It is critical that we focus on creating maps and establishing a map-making process that will work for all Wisconsin residents. Without this, countless voices will continue to go unheard.