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Robin Vos’ maps gambit is desperate and deceitful
“This bill is not the ‘Iowa model’.”
The Recombobulation Area is a ten-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winning weekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by longtime Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Wisconsin Republicans threw a real curveball this week, introducing a bill to change the way Wisconsin draws its maps. This seemed to be a major departure from years of Republican policy on redistricting, but might be more complicated than it initially appeared.
This proposal follows what Vos said to be the “Iowa-style” of redistricting, a model celebrated for the nonpartisan process in which maps are drawn, but one where the legislature essentially still has final say over the maps that are ultimately adopted.
This surprise proposal — which includes no public hearing and schedules an Assembly vote just two days from the announcement — comes as public pressure against Vos’ ongoing threats to impeach newly-elected Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz has reached a fever pitch, thrusting Wisconsin into a state of political turmoil, inviting a host of especially negative national attention, and prompting the Democratic Party of Wisconsin to launch the “Defend Justice” campaign, which calls for every last state legislator to take a stance on the extreme move of impeachment.
Initially, it might seem as if this new redistricting proposal could be viewed as a compromise of sorts, and perhaps a tacit admission that current maps are indeed unconstitutionally gerrymandered and will not survive the pending legal challenge. Despite its flaws, the “Iowa model" provides a far better process than the current one in Wisconsin, which has produced what many consider to be among the nation’s most gerrymandered state legislative maps. It could be seen as something that could cut through the noise of an escalating political battle — one Republicans are unquestionably losing — and provide a legitimate solution to a thorny issue.
But that’s not quite what’s happening here.
What fair maps advocates in Wisconsin have long liked about the “Iowa model” is that it takes the process of drawing new maps away from the politicians – making it so legislators aren’t the ones choosing their own voters, a distinct problem in Wisconsin’s redistricting process. The spirit of this nonpartisan process is one both parties in Wisconsin can and should support. But the approval process in the “Iowa model” is where things get tricky.
In fact, in 2019, when Gov. Evers referenced Iowa’s nonpartisan process as a basis for proposing redistricting reform in Wisconsin, he did so with significant differences in how maps would be amended or approved. Instead of a simple majority vote by the legislature, which is what it takes in Iowa, Evers’ proposal would have required a 75% vote in both houses of the legislature before changes would be made.
After Vos’ press conference introducing the proposal, Evers almost immediately released a statement, calling the proposal “bogus,” saying:
“A Legislature that has now repeatedly demonstrated they will not uphold basic tenets of our democracy—and will bully, threaten, or fire on a whim anyone who happens to disagree with them—cannot be trusted to appoint or oversee someone charged with drawing fair maps. And I'm not going to participate in enabling Republicans in the Legislature to keep trying to use and abuse their power to control the outcome of our elections.”
That’s part of the problem here. The person introducing this proposal is Robin Vos, after all, and there is perhaps no one in Wisconsin with less credibility on the issue of redistricting than Robin Vos.
“I trust Robin Vos about as far as I can huck an industrial popcorn kettle," said Joe Oslund, communications director for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin (referencing Vos’ popcorn company).
Vos introducing this proposal as he did on Monday came as a complete surprise to legislative Democrats, multiple sources say. Even Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu was “noncommittal” about taking up the proposal, per WisPolitics, saying Senate Republicans would “discuss it at a later date.”
At the press conference introducing the proposal, the Assembly Speaker’s remarks were particularly combative and full of half-truths and political grandstanding. With Vos being the longest-serving Assembly Speaker in the state’s history, we have a mountain of evidence at this point to suggest that the media and the public should not take him at his word. We can’t be acting like we’re new to his approach. When it comes to Vos, the devil is always in the details.
Those details are crucial here. Taking a closer look at the bill itself, it’s clear this proposal differs from the “Iowa model” in key ways.
As Marquette professor (and frequent Recombobulation Area contributor) Phil Rocco put it, “A better way of thinking of this bill is an “Iowa style” redistricting plan with several “Wisconsin style” escape hatches that nullify the whole thing.”
Responding to Wisconsin Republicans’ “Iowa-style” proposal, Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand said on Twitter, “Their bill isn’t the Iowa model.”
A main difference between the “Iowa model” and the Wisconsin Republican bill is that the Wisconsin bills skirts any kind of judicial oversight that’s key to the Iowa process.
Andy Suchorski, a Democratic political consultant in Wisconsin and the former executive director of Iowa Senate Democrats, said the “Iowa model” and the Wisconsin bill deviate in a key manner, namely, when there is an impasse of divided government – like what we saw in the last redistricting battle, when Republicans passed maps that Tony Evers vetoed – and how courts would get involved.
“In the ‘Iowa model,’ it does go to the state Supreme Court” in the event of such an impasse, he said. “It is in the Iowa Code and is part of the process. That part is not part of Robin Vos’ bill. He wants to take the now-liberal leaning state Supreme Court out of the process entirely.”
So, essentially, the proposal from Vos and Wisconsin Republicans differs from the “Iowa model” in that it removes checks and balances in the form of the state Supreme Court from making determinations, paving the way for Vos and the gerrymandered GOP majority to control the process — precisely the type of situation many want to avoid in any redistricting scenario going forward.
“Wisconsinites deserve the truth, not to be manipulated,” said Francesca Hong, state representative from Madison. “This (bill) is not the ‘Iowa model’.”
The group Common Cause Wisconsin, which has long advocated for nonpartisan redistricting based on the Iowa model, said in a press release that Vos’ proposal “lacks the safeguards to prevent the party in the majority from rigging the process,” explaining that the “majority party” could simply vote down nonpartisan-drawn maps “and then pass their own partisan plan by a simple majority.”
What this proposal is really about is twofold. For one, it is an attempt to change the narrative as Republicans throughout the state legislature are seeing Vos’ impeachment threat backfire in a major way. State Rep. Ron Tusler even admitted as such on Twitter, saying, “Why do you think we are all of a sudden in favor of something that we were against?”
Secondly – and more importantly – it is an attempt to undermine the redistricting lawsuit that will likely soon be before the Wisconsin Supreme Court. This is the case that Vos wants Protasiewicz to recuse from – and is still threatening to impeach her over – despite mounting evidence suggesting she’s done nothing differently from other candidates in judicial campaigns.
But the redistricting lawsuit is underway. The case is happening. The train has left the station. Whatever the state does next with its redistricting process will have to be determined after the Wisconsin Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of current maps, and by extension, whether or not partisan gerrymandering is illegal in the state of Wisconsin.
“If we win our case,” said Dan Lenz, staff counsel at Law Forward, the group bringing forth the redistricting lawsuit, “it would set a precedent that would make partisan gerrymandering illegal.”
That’s not just the Republican-advantage gerrymandering that we’ve seen in Wisconsin over the past 12 years. That goes for all partisan gerrymandering, no matter which party is controlling the levers of government. The state needs to address this plague of partisan gerrymandering, once and for all.
So, no. A haphazardly slapped-together bill released right as the pressure is dialed up, with a vote scheduled in two days, with no public hearing, released by the least trustworthy member of the Wisconsin State Legislature is not something worth taking seriously.
Yes to nonpartisan redistricting, no to whatever this is.
Robin Vos is appearing increasingly desperate in his attempts to cling to power and retain the maps that give him outsized power in state government. People can see right through this duplicitous gambit.
But what these actions from Wisconsin Republicans tell us is that one way or another, those maps — the most gerrymandered state legislative maps in the nation — are going down.
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Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes The Recombobulation Area. He’s also written for The New York Times, The Daily Beast, Heartland Signal, Belt Magazine, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s won 17 Milwaukee Press Club Excellence in Journalism Awards. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
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