Democratic Gov. Tony Evers unveiled a proposal Tuesday to do away with the state’s partisan redistricting process and give the responsibility of drawing the state’s political maps to a nonpartisan agency.
The governor’s plan, to be included in his state budget request, mirrors the independent process in Iowa and would take effect before the state’s redistricting process gets fully underway after the 2020 Census is complete.
The proposal would directly address the practice of a political party in total control of state government drawing legislative maps to skew majorities in their favor, as Republicans did after the 2010 election in Wisconsin. In the 2018 election, Democrats swept all statewide offices while Republicans held on to a 63-36 majority in the Assembly.
The practice, known as partisan gerrymandering, is the subject of an ongoing federal lawsuit, and follows calls the governor issued on the campaign trail for a redistricting process supposedly free from political influence.
“The people should get to choose their elected officials, not the other way around,” Evers said in a statement. “By creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission in Wisconsin, we’re making sure that when we’re redrawing district maps in 2021, we’re putting people before politics.”
Like dozens of other states, Wisconsin’s Legislature, controlled by Republicans, is chiefly responsible for drawing the state’s political maps, subject to veto by the governor.
Evers’ plan, however, would align Wisconsin with a handful of other states where independent commissions draw the lines. The proposal is similar to those in previous Democratic bills to establish nonpartisan redistricting in the state. It comes after a Marquette Law School Poll released in January found 72 percent of Wisconsin voters support nonpartisan redistricting.
Evers’ proposal would give responsibility for drawing political boundaries to an existing state agency, the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau, at the direction of a new nonpartisan Redistricting Advisory Commission. The bill would appropriate an additional $10,000 over the two-year budget cycle to the LRB. The state Legislature would still vote on the redistricting bill the LRB produces but would be restricted in the changes it could make.
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The commission would consist of five members. The leader of each party in either house would get an appointment, and then the four appointees would together select a fifth member who would serve as the chairperson.
Commission members would need to be eligible to vote in Wisconsin, and the plan would prohibit politicians, their relatives and staffers, as well as those who hold office for a political party from serving. It would also ban employees of the Legislature or Congress. The commission would be required to hold a public hearing on its draft of the political maps in each congressional district.
Under the plan, the Legislative Reference Bureau would not be allowed to use voting patterns, party information, incumbent residence information or demographic information in drawing district maps, except where required by law.
The plan comes as a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s political maps continues to make its way through the courts after the U.S. Supreme Court last summer remanded the case back to the Western District of Wisconsin. In a 2-1 decision, a three-judge panel hearing the case recently delayed a trial in the case, given expected decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in similar cases this summer. The trial is now set for July 15.
Sachin Chheda, head of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, which seeks to end partisan gerrymandering, praised Evers’ proposal in a statement and called on the Legislature to support it.
“We applaud Governor Evers for his leadership as we try to end the map-rigging that has corrupted Wisconsin politics,” Chheda said. “This decision gives us a chance to have representative democracy again in Wisconsin.”
Republicans, such as Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, have previously dismissed concerns over partisan gerrymandering.
Spokespersons for Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t respond to requests seeking comment.