Legislative redistricting effort faces challenges
By John McCracken
BROWN COUNTY – In the past, district maps described as a “squid with lots of tentacles” would be easily identifiable as gerrymandered.
“It used to be ‘I know gerrymandering when I see it,’” said Jonathon Dunbar, an associate professor of mathematics at St. Norbert College.
Given the complexity of map drawing, Dunbar said shape is not always a good indicator for malfeasance.
“There may be a very good reason why a district is drawn to have these tentacles,” he said.
Dunbar uses arithmetic to study patterns and proportions and apply theories to drawing district maps.
He said drawing maps is a balancing act, and one Wisconsinites are becoming more interested in.
More than half of Wisconsin counties passed referendums last year to ask the Wisconsin Legislature to create a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of legislative and congressional district plans and maps.
In the recent November 2020 election, 72 percent of Brown County voters agreed and passed the same referendum.
Anthony Phillips, of Appleton, has been involved with local fair maps initiatives, including Fair Maps Wisconsin.
This led to him applying for and eventually representing the 8th Congressional District for the People’s Map Commission, a nine-member group created by a Gov. Tony Evers’ executive order.
“Our job is to offer the Wisconsin people a very neutral, nonpartisan and fair way to do this,” Phillips said.
Taking input from members of the public, the commission will recommend new district maps to Wisconsin legislators, who hold the final say.
“One of our goals is to draw up the process as what we are doing to be used every decade, so that there’s fair and nonpartisan redistricting that the voters can count on every 10 years,” Phillips said.
Wisconsin’s constitution states district maps must be compact and be bounded by “county, precinct, town, or ward lines where possible.”
New maps will be drawn using data from the 2020 census, adhering to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Packed and cracked
Dunbar said the two main tools of gerrymandering are packing and cracking.
“Suppose you have a voting block and you want to suppress their overall output in voting power in the state,” Dunbar said. “If I can get all of them into a single district where they make up 100 percent of the voters, they’re always going to win that district, but my group will win all the others. By doing this, I’m packing them into a single district, where I’m just giving up on them and cutting my losses.”
Renee Gasch, a De Pere resident and member of Citizen Action Wisconsin, said Green Bay’s 90th Assembly District is packed, and De Pere is cracked.
The 90th is a historically Democratic district, with recently elected Rep. Kristina Shelton (D-Green Bay) winning 60 percent of the votes in November.
Shelton was endorsed by Citizen Action Wisconsin during her 2020 campaign.
“There’s no one in this state who can say that they’ve come through the last 10 years unscathed by our current maps,” she said.
Based on votes cast in the most recent election, Shelton said it’s clear the system is not equitable.
“The Assembly Democrats received 45.5 percent of the total vote in November,” she said. “If we had an equitable system, we would have 45 seats in the Assembly. We currently have 38.”
Gasch said De Pere was cracked into multiple districts, making voter education, outreach and advocacy difficult.
“It’s just a mess,” she said. “(Gerrymandering) dilutes the power of De Pere, because we can’t understand what our maps look like in order to exercise our power.”
Phillips looked back at the previous drawing of legislative maps in 2011 and found that 58 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties were divided, and 47 counties needed to be split.
“One of the main things that we’ve heard in the commission hearings has been the excessive splitting of counties and how that reduces the representation at the state level,” Phillips said.
Gasch takes exception to the design of District 88, with Rep. John Macco (R-Ledgeview), and District 2, with Rep. Shae Sortwel (R-Two Rivers).
Portions of District 2 cross the Fox River in De Pere, and include a ward in Hobart, as well as stretching to Two Rivers along Lake Michigan.
“One of the goals of the commission this time around is to respect geographic boundary lines, but also the lines of boards and municipalities in town when drawing the map,” Phillips said.
The 88th includes part of east De Pere, and extends north to cover part of eastern Green Bay, including the UW-Green Bay campus.
“It’s so challenging to try and do voter outreach out here, because people are so confused about where the lines are, which district they’re in, and often they’re in a different one than their neighbor,” Gasch said.
Local maps, by the numbers
The Wisconsin State Assembly consists of 99 members serving two-year terms elected from districts across Wisconsin.
On July 20, 2011, the Legislature approved a state legislative redistricting plan, which former Gov. Scott Walker signed into law that August.
Since 2010, the 88th has had a Republican Assembly representative.
Macco, a businessman born and raised in Green Bay, has held the seat since first being elected in 2014.
Before Macco, John Klenke, a retired Schneider National executive, held the seat for four years.
The last Democratice representative elected to the seat was James Soletski, who held the seat from 2007 to 2011.
Macco did not return requests for comment.
Wisconsin’s 5th Assembly District covers a smaller portion of Brown County, mainly the Village of Hobart, but includes Kaukauna, Seymour and Freedom in Outagamie County.
It has continually gone to a Republican since 2010.
Rep. Jim Steineke was elected to the seat more than a decade ago and elected Assembly Majority Leader in 2014.
Tom Nelson, a Democrat, and current Outagamie County Executive, held the seat from 2005 to 2011.
The 89th district is being contested in a special election this spring after John Nygren resigned last month to work in the private sector as the executive director for the Wisconsin Association of Health Plans, a state health care lobbying organization.
Nygren won the seat in the 2020 general election and held the seat since 2007.
Assembly District 4 has also had Republication representation since the maps were redrawn after the 2010 elections.
Rep. David Steffen (R-Howard) has held the seat since 2015.
Before Steffen, former Green Bay city clerk and Republican Chad Weininger represented large sections of Green Bay’s west side, as well as parts of the Villages of Allouez, Howard and Ashwaubenon.
“Issues related to the legislative maps probably fall in the bottom tier of issues that are top concern for my constituents,” Steffen said.
He said the top issues for his office as of mid-January include COVID-19 vaccination distribution and “the failure of the unemployment system.”
Steffen said the People’s Map Commission is a “quasi-shadow government” Evers created to push his agenda, with the help of his allies, and is not the path forward.
“I find it interesting that this process is even occurring, especially without the requests of involvement of the legislators who are actually constitutionally required to develop the maps,” Steffen said.
When asked if he has reached out to be a part of the commission process, Steffen said this is a game the governor created, and the ball is in his court.
“It’s fundamentally and unambiguously clear that the legislators are in charge of this specific task,” said Steffen. “If the governor or the residents do not like the fact that the legislators are in charge of this process, then they have to go through a constitutional amendment process.”
Drawing future lines
Wisconsin’s legislative maps are redrawn every decade, with help from data collected from the U.S. Census.
Steffen said the Legislature generally has preliminary data by December, but the hiccups with the census due to the pandemic could cause delays in redrawing, potentially affecting November 2022 elections.
“We’re already well into January, and we don’t have clear indications for when we’re going to get the data, and every week that goes without having that data compresses the timeframe for us to get an end product,” he said.
Meanwhile, Evers is preparing to portion off line items of the upcoming biennial budget to directly support redistricting efforts.
In talking about upcoming redistricting efforts, he highlighted the need for transparency with those creating the maps and the process behind it.
Court is in session, again
Gasch said a matter before the Wisconsin Supreme Court is cause for concern regarding the process of drawing new maps this year.
In June of 2020, former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), a Milwaukee-based conservative law firm, filed a petition to have the state Supreme Court hear cases instead of federal courts, regarding possible vetoed or gridlocked maps.
Groups have written public letters and comments in opposition to the petition, including members of the public from Congressional District 8, residents of Seymour and the Door Country Fair Maps Task Force.
Attorney Misha Tseytlin appeared at a Jan. 14 public hearing representing Republican Wisconsin Congressmen Glenn Grothman, Mike Gallagher, Bryan Steil, Tom Tiffany and Scott Fitzgerald in their capacities as potential candidates for the 2022 election.
Tseytlin and the five congressmen support the petition submitted by Jensen and WILL.
Tseytlin argued, on the congressmen’s behalf, for a “least-changes” method to the previously drawn maps, or allowing the courts to choose what is fair based on social science metrics, and go about changes through the courts in case of deadlocked legislation.
In the Jan. 14 public hearing, Chief Justice Pat Roggensack countered WILL Attorney Richard Esenberg’s prediction of courts being responsible for drawing maps in the case of gridlock.
“Drawing maps would take a huge staff, and we don’t have them, and since we work for the state, we can’t just go hire someone,” said Roggensack. “I don’t know how in the world you think the court could ever draw the maps.”
In the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision of Gil v. Whitford, nine justices unanimously ruled maps drawn by the Wisconsin Legislature after the 2010 census did not harm the Democratic Party’s ability to “convert Democratic votes into Democratic seats in the Legislature.”
The case was filed by 12 registered members of the Democratic Party who challenged the Legislature’s redistricting plans, claiming unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering.
Plaintiffs said districts had been packed and cracked to favor a specific political party.
After the Supreme Court’s decision, the case was referred back to the district court where there was never a finding of gerrymandered districts in the state.
Wisconsinites are no stranger to litigation when it comes to redistricting.
Both Gasch and Phillips point to Iowa as the model for hassle-free district map drawing.
Iowa uses a model created in the 1980s in which a non-partisan, non-legislative body draws its maps every 10 years.
Phillips said Iowa courts have not had to intervene in that time period.
“The use of non-partisan commissions for election redistricting after the every-decade census is a growing trend,” he said.
Gasch said Iowa has spent significantly less money in the courts than Wisconsin in the past decades when it comes to redistricting litigation.
According Cedar Rapid’s The Gazette, the Hawkeye State spent $110,000 redistricting 10 years ago and $441,000 in 2000.
Court battles over district maps have cost Wisconsin taxpayers over $3.7 million since 2011, according to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.