The two conservative-supported legislative map proposals before the Wisconsin Supreme Court are partisan gerrymanders, while the other four submissions, which could potentially give Democrats a legislative majority, are “nearly indistinguishable,” redistricting consultants told the court on Thursday.
The consultants didn’t choose a preferred map and stopped short of calling the four Democrat-supported maps constitutional.
Still, the report provides liberals a win by likely eliminating the GOP maps from consideration. The report sets up the liberal-controlled court to choose maps that would almost certainly increase Democrats’ standing in the Legislature, with the potential of overturning Republicans’ long-standing legislative majority in a critical election year.
People are also reading…
Both GOP-supported maps are “so biased in partisan terms that they can clearly be labeled partisan gerrymanders in a pro-Republican direction,” the two court-hired redistricting consultants, University of California, Irvine political science professor Bernard Grofman and Carnegie Mellon University postdoctoral fellow Jonathan Cervas, said in a Thursday filing.
The report came out just over a month after the Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the current maps unconstitutional because many districts contain territory that isn’t contiguous, leading six parties to propose new maps to be installed for the 2024 election.
The court called for new, contiguous districts that are equally populated; bounded by county, precinct, ward or town lines; are as compact as possible; comply with federal law, including the Voting Rights Act; preserve communities of interest; and reduce municipal splits.
Additionally, the court called for maps that don’t favor one party over another. That amounted to a major victory for Democrats, because experts say the current legislative maps have a baked-in Republican advantage.
Maps were submitted by plaintiffs represented by the liberal law firm Law Forward, Republican legislators, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, Democratic lawmakers and intervenors who joined the plaintiffs’ cause.
Republican legislators submitted a map that would hardly change the current boundaries, which give the GOP close to a legislative supermajority. Other conservatives represented by the conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty provided maps that slightly reduce but still maintain baked-in GOP advantages, the consultants said.
They called the WILL map a “stealth gerrymander” that looks on its face to be a good map but yet “exhibits an extreme level of partisan bias.”
“From a social science perspective, the Legislature’s plan does not deserve further consideration,” they added.
In response, Evers said the days of Wisconsinites living under gerrymandered maps are numbered.
“While this is just one step in this process, today is an important day for the people of Wisconsin who deserve maps that are fair, responsive and reflect the will of the people,” he said.
Spokespeople for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, didn’t respond to a request for comment late Thursday evening.
In the report, the consultants also pushed back against a common talking point among legislative Republicans — that Wisconsin’s geography, which sees Democratic voters more condensed in urban communities while Republicans are more dispersed among the state’s rural areas, all but guarantees Republican majorities.
“The argument advanced that the political geography of Wisconsin makes it inevitable that Republicans will win an outsized share of the legislative districts is contradicted by the maps submitted to this court,” the consultants wrote, noting that the other four plans submitted to the court, including those by Evers and Democratic senators, “improve on traditional good government criteria” when compared with the state’s current maps.
The four Democratic-supported maps would each likely provide the party who wins the most statewide votes with a legislative majority, the consultants said. Democrats have won the vast majority of statewide elections since 2016 but Republicans currently have a 64-35 majority in the Assembly and 22-11 majority in the Senate.
But the maps submitted by the Legislature and WILL both “operate to preclude any potential for Democratic control of the legislature except in elections which the Democratic candidate does exceptionally well — well above a simple majority,” Grofman and Cervas said.
“That kind of insulation from the forces of electoral change is the hallmark of a gerrymander,” the consultants continue. “To put it simply, in Wisconsin, geography is not destiny. The plan chosen determines whether political neutrality (and other criteria) will be served.”
Rick Esenberg, WILL’s president and general counsel, said in a statement the report “hides its bias behind a fog of faux sophistication.”
“Let’s be clear, our maps have been rejected for one reason and one reason alone: They don’t produce the partisan outcomes the experts or many on the Court want,” Esenberg continued. “So, they ignore all the traditional tests to distinguish partisan bias from political geography.”
The consultants concluded their report by noting that the state Supreme Court can instruct them to improve any of the proposed plans with regard to the court’s criteria as laid out in December or it can instruct them to draw new maps if deemed necessary.
“In the process of reviewing plans, we have done extensive explorations of the geography of Wisconsin, and we are confident that we can do so,” the consultants wrote. “If the Court were to instruct us to create such a map, we are poised to produce it quickly.”
Legislative map was vetoed
The majority opinion issued by liberal justices in December said the court would choose new maps unless new ones got approved through the legislative process and signed into law first.
In a last-ditch attempt, Republican legislators last week approved legislative maps that largely mirror the boundaries Evers proposed to the court but include changes that reduce the number of incumbent lawmakers who would have to face each other in the next election.
Evers vetoed the proposal on Tuesday, saying moving district lines to protect incumbents was an example of gerrymandering.
Vos said the changes legislative Republicans made were “miniscule” and were done to correct maps that Vos and others said sought to punish Republicans by intentionally pitting several GOP incumbents against one another. Democratic legislators called the move an effort by their GOP colleagues to hold on to their strong majorities.
Evers’ proposed maps would pair incumbents — almost all Republicans — in 15 Assembly districts and six Senate districts, according to a Legislative Reference Bureau analysis. The amended maps Evers vetoed would have reduced the number of pairings in the Assembly to 11 but left the six pairings in the Senate largely unchanged.
Unless another set of maps moving through the Legislature receives Evers’ approval, which appears highly unlikely at this point, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is all but certain to decide the state’s next set of maps. Republicans are likely to appeal the eventual decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.