A battle is brewing over the redistricting process in Wisconsin. Political science experts say the outcome could have major implications on the value of your vote and who you’re represented by in Congress and the Wisconsin Legislature.
Republicans who control the state legislature have released their redistricting plans, but state and federal lawsuits were previously filed due to the presumption that GOP leaders and Governor Tony Evers will not be able to agree on the new maps.
Democrats believe the maps need to be redrawn in a non-partisan way, unlike 2011 when republicans controlled the entire process. Republicans are pushing to keep the districts nearly identical with the hopes of holding onto their majority and political power.
Every ten years, states redraw their legislative and congressional districts using the latest U.S. Census Bureau date to balance the population. The way, each district has around the same number of voters, meaning each vote carries the same weight.
To explain how the process works and why it’s controversial, let’s go 360.
Cheryl Maranto is a member of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin and the Fair Maps Coalition. She believes the maps drawn and approved by republicans a decade ago give them an unfair advantage that is seen in the makeup of the state legislature today.
In a ‘purple state’ where statewide elections are often a 50-50 split, republicans hold 64 percent of the state’s senate seats and 61 percent in the assembly.
"They can afford to ignore us because they're in safe districts, so you can have a situation where your vote counts, but it doesn't really count,” Maranto said.
Democrats want a non-partisan commission to be in charge of redrawing the maps. A 2019 Marquette Law School poll found that 72 percent of voters, including 63 percent of republican voters agree.
"What we in the Fair Maps Coalition are arguing is that because the current maps were so partisanly gerrymandered that we really need to take a fresh look,” Maranto said.
GOP lawmakers disagree and are pulling in the opposite direction. The Wisconsin Senate approved a resolution in late September calling for the new district maps to remain as close as possible to the existing ones. It passed along party lines with only republicans in favor.
"The idea is that we want to minimize the number of people whose representative changes after redistricting such that they are now being represented by a person who they don't know and they don't have any relationship with,” said Rick Esenberg.
Esenberg is the president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Esenberg says republicans hold a natural advantage when it comes to geographic districts because they are more evenly spread throughout the state whereas a majority of democrats are densely located in larger cities.
"I think we sometimes overestimate the ability of politicians to draw maps that favor them,” he said.
Nearly two years ago, Governor Evers signed an executive order to form a non-partisan group called the People’s Maps Commission. Independent judges selected the members who have not been involved in politics like Chairman Christopher Ford, an emergency physician who lives in Whitefish Bay.
"We're not professionals in redistricting, however we're doing what people in Wisconsin say that they wanted and that's fair maps as though they can feel that they're represented,” Ford said.
The People’s Maps Commission released three versions of their congressional and legislative maps in October. Ford says some areas have significant changes compared to the current versions.
"We have been able to make maps that are objectively more fair,” he said.
John Johnson is a research associate at Marquette Law School. He’s assigned to study Wisconsin’s redistricting process and the best ways to draw the maps impartially.
"Under a more neutrally drawn map, democrats would still need to win more than a narrow statewide victory in order to get a majority of either house in the legislature, but they would win incrementally more seats as their majority across the state increases,” he said.
Johnson says it’s almost a certainty at this point that Wisconsin’s redistricting process will wind up being done by a federal court which is something that’s happened several times in the past when Wisconsin’s government was divided like it is now.
"It's really hard to imagine this legislature and this governor agreeing on a mapping scheme and so it will go to the courts and most people I've talked to believe that the People's Map Commission that Evers established was a sort of bid to create a set of maps that maybe the courts would take as their basis when they end up drawing this, but everybody I know has expected for years that this would end up in the court system,” he said.
The redistricting process is supposed to be completed by March of 2022.