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Tony Evers' redistricting commission kicks off with testimony from Eric Holder
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Tony Evers' redistricting commission kicks off with testimony from Eric Holder

Former Democratic U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday addressed the first meeting of the commission Gov. Tony Evers wants to draw the state’s political maps, saying fair maps will help reduce partisan rancor and the political polarization that have divided the country.

Holder’s address and the meeting of the newly formed People’s Maps Commission, made up of members from Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts, come as lawmakers gear up to draw the next set of political boundaries that will be used for the next decade.

“With fair maps, you can have political debates that are not pushed to the extremes, but toward reasonable solutions and principled compromises,” Holder told the online meeting of People’s Maps Commissioners. “With fair maps, you can help lower the temperature in Madison and in the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C., and with fair maps, you are more likely to have representatives who truly reflect the will of the people.”

Holder currently serves as the chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. He said partisan gerrymandering has bred gridlock, polarization and cynicism about democracy, and said the problem can’t be solved by politicians alone.

In Wisconsin, the Legislature will be responsible for approving a set of political maps after the U.S. Census results are released next summer. The Legislature is expected to be controlled by Republicans, but the maps can be vetoed by Evers, a Democrat. If the maps are vetoed, the courts can intervene but would need to draw them by April 2022 in time for candidates to know the shape of the districts they’re running in.

Evers’ maps commission doesn’t change the fact that the Legislature and governor are ultimately responsible for approving an initial set of maps. Rather, the commission is meant to provide transparency to the mapmaking process and an alternative set of maps for lawmakers and courts to consider.

The commission — composed of nine members selected by three retired judges — is hosting public meetings until April 2021 to hear testimony from experts and members of the public. After U.S. Census data is released next summer, the maps commission will help guide the drawing of maps to present to the Legislature.

Evers vowed the commission’s mapmaking process won’t involve lobbyists or secrecy agreements, a reference to the last redistricting process in 2011 when Republicans controlled the Legislature and governor’s office.

At that time, the maps were created in a tightly controlled room at the Madison law office of Michael Best & Friedrich, and Democrats were not allowed to take part in the process. Republican lawmakers were required to sign secrecy oaths to view drafts.

Under those maps, Republicans in the Senate and Assembly have enjoyed healthy majorities, even when receiving fewer votes statewide.

Evers’ executive order creating the commission also reiterates the maps the commission produces should be free from partisan bias or advantage, and dictates the maps avoid diluting minority votes; be compact and contiguous; avoid splitting wards and municipalities; retain the core population in each district; maintain traditional communities that share a common identity; and prevent voter disenfranchisement.

Republican leaders have hammered the commission. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, called the commission unconstitutional, while Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, vowed the GOP will reject the maps and go about their own redistricting process.

The commission on Thursday heard testimony from Wisconsinites who complained that gerrymandering has contributed to electing extreme liberal and extreme conservative lawmakers.

Ruth Greenwood, a Harvard Law School lecturer and co-director of voting rights and redistricting at the Campaign Legal Center, said commissioners, when drawing maps, should bear in mind the consequences of each political line they draw as they consider the representation of communities, races in the districts that they create. Under state and federal law, state and congressional districts must include roughly the same population.

“Make conscious choices, be aware of all of the data that is out there … so you know the effects that the decisions you make as to lines, what those effects will be,” Greenwood said.

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