Wisconsin Republicans push redistricting plan to head off adverse court ruling

Published: Sep. 14, 2023 at 9:19 AM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The Wisconsin Assembly is scheduled to pass a hastily introduced redistricting plan Thursday that Republicans say is nonpartisan, providing Democrats with something they’ve been seeking for more than a decade.

Democrats, suspicious of Republican motives, summarily rejected the plan modeled on Iowa’s process, saying it’s all a ruse designed to circumvent the newly liberal-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court from throwing out the Republican-drawn maps.

The drama is playing out amid a continued Republican threat of impeachment against the Supreme Court justice who gave liberals majority control in August if she doesn’t step down from hearing a pair of redistricting lawsuits.

The Republican redistricting bill will almost certainly not become law.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who would have to sign it to become law, called the plan “bogus” shortly after its introduction. A veto is all but certain.

Still, Democrats have supported similar redistricting plans in the past.

Evers introduced a system in 2019 for drawing maps that very closely resembles the new Republican bill. Under both plans, staff with the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau would be charged with drawing the maps. If their plans don’t pass after two tries, then the Legislature can make changes the third time through.

That’s how it works in Iowa, where legislative staffers use nonpartisan criteria to draw districts that are then subject to an up-or- down vote by the Legislature and a potential gubernatorial veto.

After the 2020 census, Iowa’s Republican-led Senate voted along party lines to reject the first maps produced by staff, sending them back for another try. The Legislature then accepted the second version, which resulted in Republicans winning all four of the state’s congressional districts in the 2022 elections. Democrats had held at least one district for the previous two decades.

There’s one key difference between what Evers and advocates in Wisconsin — including a coalition pushing for redistricting reform — have been calling for. Under their plans, on the third try it would take a three-fourths majority in the Legislature to pass a map, essentially ensuring it would require bipartisan support.

The Republican bill up for passage Thursday does not include that higher vote requirement. Instead, any changes could be approved with a simple majority.

The higher vote requirement is a critical component of any redistricting change, said Jay Heck, director of Common Cause Wisconsin.

But Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, speaking Wednesday on WisconsinEye, dismissed those concerns, noting that it has worked in Iowa for decades.

“If somehow you think we’re going to sneak through a Republican map that has some kind of favor and get Tony Evers’ signature on it, I think you’re smoking something,” Vos said. “It’s not going to happen. It’s all red herrings. It’s all hypocrisy of the left.”

The bill also removes a provision of the Iowa law that has a deadline for maps to be approved before the state Supreme Court intervenes, another fatal flaw in addition to the lack of a three-fourths vote requirement, said Democratic Rep. Deb Andraca.

Vos said Thursday that Republicans would consider making changes to the bill, including adding the higher vote requirement. And he called the Democratic concern about the Supreme Court issue a “red herring” because, he said, any dispute over the maps would end up before the court, as they do now.

Democratic lawmakers sidestepped questions Thursday about whether they favored giving the Legislature full authority to draw maps over the GOP plan handing it off nonpartisan staffers.

“We are going to continue working on nonpartisan redistricting until it is the law of the land here in Wisconsin,” said Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Greta Neubauer.

Democrats and those pushing for redistricting reform say Vos and Republicans are being disingenuous by pushing the bill through less than 48 hours after introduction with no public hearing and no consultation with groups who have been working on redistricting for years.

Once passed by the Assembly, the redistricting bill would head to the Senate. If approved there, it would then go to Evers, who is expected to veto it.

There are two pending lawsuits before the Wisconsin Supreme Court seeking new maps. Vos has threatened to pursue impeachment against Justice Janet Protasiewicz if she does not recuse herself from those cases because she called the current maps “unfair” and “rigged” during her campaign.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has not said whether it will hear the redistricting challenges. Those bringing the lawsuits want the court to order new maps in time for the 2024 election. Wisconsin’s current maps, first drawn by Republicans in 2011 and then again with few changes last year, are considered among the most gerrymandered in the country.