Wisconsin is one step closer to fairer maps
The Wisconsin Supreme Court-appointed consultants said map submissions from Republicans and their allies are "partisan gerrymanders."
The Recombobulation Area is a ten-time Milwaukee Press Club award-winningweekly opinion column and online publication written, edited and published by longtime Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
For more than a decade, politics in Wisconsin have been broken, and that’s in part because the fundamentals that shape the way our government operates have been broken. At the core of that problem are Wisconsin’s deeply gerrymandered state legislative maps, tilted to the extreme end of Republican control, entrenching the GOP’s hold on the levers of power and warping the way politics work in this, the swingiest of swing states.
But that problematic power structure is in the midst of being disassembled. Voters in Wisconsin spoke decisively in last year’s spring election, flipping the balance of power on the state’s highest court, with those gerrymandered state legislative maps emerging as a top campaign issue in the race. A case challenging those maps on multiple fronts was brought forth almost immediately after the new justice, Janet Protasiewicz, was sworn in, and by the end of 2023, the new 4-3 majority struck those maps down as unconstitutional.
In that Dec. 22 ruling, the court initiated a process to create new maps for the Wisconsin State Legislature. On Jan. 12, parties involved submitted new maps that would be considered by the Wisconsin Supreme Court-appointed consultants, redistricting experts Bernard Grofman and Jonathan Cervas.
Last week, the two consultants appointed by the Wisconsin Supreme Court released their report. This highly anticipated 25-page document was released the evening of Thursday, Feb. 1.
The main takeaway from this report is that the two sets of maps submitted by right-leaning parties were identified as “partisan gerrymanders,” and the four from left-leaning parties were deemed to meet the court’s criteria, but are “nearly indistinguishable” from one another. None of those four map submissions — from Gov. Tony Evers, Democratic Senators, Clarke petitioners (Law Forward), and Wright petitioners — were specifically recommended to the court by the consultants to be adopted by the 2024 election.
This puts the Court is on track to make a selection either from the four maps submissions that were not found to be partisan gerrymanders, or the Court could instruct consultants to draw upon any or all of these four proposals to, as they said in the report, “offer the Court a map intended to improve performance on most or all of the court mandated criteria,” and do so in time to meet the March 15 deadline for new maps to be in place.
So, while there’s still some ambiguity on what exactly comes next in this process, by expressly saying the map submissions from legislative Republican and the Wisconsin Institute of Law & Liberty (WILL) should not be considered, this report takes Wisconsin one step closer to fairer maps.
In many ways, what the consultants described in their report elucidates much of what we have already known about these map submissions — that the submissions from Wisconsin Republicans and their right-wing allies are indeed partisan gerrymanders.
“From a social science perspective,” the report reads, “the Legislature's plan does not deserve further consideration...We also note that both the Legislature's plan and the Johnson (WILL) plan, from a social science perspective, are partisan gerrymanders. The four other submitted plans are similar on most criteria. From a social science point of view these (four) plans are nearly indistinguishable."
As the report suggests (and as we’ve been saying around here for weeks since maps were submitted), there is one clear outlier among the six options being considered, and that is the one from legislative Republicans.
They basically just did not do the assignment. The Court asked for parties submitting maps to abandon “least change” and consider “partisan impact” for new maps submissions, and legislative Republicans essentially just resubmitted the same map that was just struck down, fixed for the contiguity issue. In every other way, they are virtually identical to the deeply gerrymandered maps that were just struck down, and the report even says that “the Legislature’s proposal is slightly more biased,” even.
It continues to be striking just how brazenly absurd legislative Republicans have been about this redistricting process after the Wisconsin Supreme Court's Dec. 22 ruling. They did not do what the ruling called for, resubmitted close to the same map, threw a huge fit, called everything else a gerrymander, tried a half-baked plan to go around the Court and pass different maps that would protect Republican incumbents … and then their map was singled out in the report as a clear partisan gerrymander, not to be considered. What did they think was going to happen? Perhaps being insulated from accountability for more than a decade has seriously hampered the party’s ability to see outside of its conservative media fortified bubble.
While the legislative Republican map was dismissed for a number of reasons, the map from Johnson Intervenors-Respondents — i.e., the map submitted by WILL — was identified by the consultants as a “stealth gerrymander.”
As we've also been saying, the WILL map at least did the assignment, drawing a map that purports to fit the court’s criteria. It’s not exactly a high bar to clear, but they at least did what the legislative Republicans stubbornly refused to do. But within the report, consultants identified a number of ways in which the WILL map “exhibits an extreme level of partisan bias,” leading to its “stealth gerrymander” characterization.
The hysterics of the reaction on the right in Wisconsin in the immediate wake of this report’s release might suggest the other four options are clear Democratic gerrymanders, but such is not the case. Each of the four non-gerrymandered map submissions instead aim for an environment that gets much closer to the near 50-50 split we see in so many elections in the state, a far cry from the 64-35 Republican majority we currently have in the 99-seat State Assembly.
The report actually goes as far to say that not only are the two GOP-aligned submissions partisan gerrymanders that favor Republicans, but that “all the other maps for both the Assembly and Senate (except for the Democratic Senators’ Senate map) have a modest Republican leaning partisan bias.”
To reiterate, these expert, nonpartisan consultants said that almost all of the map submissions from Democrats and left-leaning groups have a slight bias that favors Republicans. There is no map submission here that can be characterized as a partisan gerrymander favoring Democrats. The two “sides” on this matter are not the same.
The issue of “political geography” often arises in discussing how to draw the best maps for Wisconsin. Within this discussion, Republicans in Wisconsin like to push the narrative that Democrats are only clustered in Milwaukee and Madison, ignoring the fact that cities like Eau Claire, La Crosse, Stevens Point, Racine, Kenosha, Beloit, Janesville, Baraboo, Onalaska, Oshkosh, Appleton, and Green Bay have elected Democratic representatives (maybe that’s part of why Republicans are continuing to do worse in these mid-size cities across the state, but that’s an issue to dig into in another column).
The political geography of Wisconsin gives the GOP a not-insignificant advantage in winning a majority in the state legislature, a point we’ve long acknowledged here at The Recombobulation Area. There are several urban districts that vote in more overwhelming margins for Democrats than their rural or exurban counterparts vote as heavily in favor of Republicans. But that advantage amounts to a small one — roughly about 2%, fair maps advocates say — and not anywhere close to the double-digit advantages drawn by WILL and Republicans, which make it near impossible for Democrats to win a simple majority in this 50-50 purple state.
The consultants addressed this point in their report, too, saying, “the geography of Wisconsin does not preclude the creation of good government maps that also seek to satisfy the goals of majority rule representation and avoiding political gerrymandering.” With the rather remarkable line, consultants concluded the following:
“To put it simply, in Wisconsin, geography is not destiny.”
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None of the four submissions from Democrats and left-leaning groups are perfect. They each may have their flaws, and consultants may seek to address those flaws as this process continues to move forward. But any of these options would improve upon the deeply broken environment beset by Wisconsin’s Republican gerrymander. Not only would they create a far more competitive electoral environment in the state legislature, they would bring Wisconsin closer to a scenario where its maps actually reflect the politics of the people living in the state. There are no “perfect” solutions, but we can, as our nation’s founding documents express, continue to strive for something “more perfect.” Fairer maps are in sight, and can be a part of continuing to perfect our union here in Wisconsin.
Since the court’s Dec. 22 ruling, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has mentioned wanting to bring a challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court, and while that seems unlikely to be heard considering this case was over a matter of the state constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court has proven itself to be unpredictable, so the slim possibility of a final hail mary that would halt new maps for the 2024 election still remains.
But make no mistake, we are entering the endgame of this redistricting saga.
In a statement following the release of the report, Gov. Evers said, “The days of Wisconsinites living under some of the most gerrymandered maps in the country are numbered.”
“The key takeaway,” Doug Poland, partner at Stafford Rosenbaum and co-founder of Law Forward, the group that brought the challenge to the maps, said in a Twitter thread, “The GOP gerrymander of Wisconsin in place since 2011 is dead.”
We are getting close.
This week, parties involved in the case will file briefs responding to the consultants’ report. Then, it will be up to the Wisconsin Supreme Court to make a decision on the maps. There is building optimism that the Wisconsin State Legislature will indeed have new maps in place in time for the 2024 election, and that those maps will not have the absurd Republican tilt that has in so many ways defined the last generation of state politics, presenting a brand new landscape for what could be the most competitive state legislative elections Wisconsin has seen in a generation.
Fairer maps for the state legislature will not just be better for Democrats and their voters who have been shut out of power in the state legislature for so long. It’s not just about the D vs. R calculus that factors into this decision.
Indeed, fairer maps will be better for all Wisconsinites, across the political spectrum, inviting more competition, less extreme polarization, and ultimately, a healthier environment for politics and good governance in this state. After this consultants’ report, we are one step closer to this better, fairer situation becoming a reality.
This is how Wisconsin rebuilds its broken political foundation.
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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