Top Republican lawmakers haven’t wasted any time trying to waste taxpayer money on gerrymandering in Wisconsin.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, R-Oostburg, hired two private law firms back in December and January to defend rigged voting maps the GOP plans to draw later this year.
They won’t have the census data they need to reshape legislative and congressional voting districts until late summer or fall. But that didn’t stop Vos and Co. from lawyering up at public expense, hiring the Consovoy McCarthy and Bell Giftos St. John law firms. The last time Republicans who control the Legislature drew the maps to their partisan advantage a decade ago, the legal tab to the state treasury topped $2.5 million.
Thankfully, a Dane County judge slapped Vos’ big-spending and litigious hand last month. Judge Stephen Ehlke voided the contracts with the law firms April 29. He ruled that preparing for lawsuits over actions that haven’t even occurred is not a core power of the Legislature.
Lawmakers are supposed to make laws. They’re not supposed to make lawsuits over possible laws they haven’t even proposed or passed yet.
And in this case, no lawsuits at all should occur. Instead, Wisconsin should adopt Iowa’s proven model for drawing fair maps at virtually no public expense. That’s what a bipartisan group of Wisconsin lawmakers proposed last week. Most are Democrats, led by Rep. Deb Andraca of Whitefish Bay and Jeff Smith of Eau Claire. Democrats lack the power to force change. But two Republicans are on board: Reps. Todd Novak of Dodgeville and Travis Tranel of Cuba City. At least six Republicans have voiced support for nonpartisan redistricting in recent years. The deadline to join as cosponsors before the bill is introduced is Monday.
The vast majority of the public — Democrats, Republicans and independents — wants a neutral process for drawing voting districts before the 2022 elections.
County boards in 55 of 72 Wisconsin counties have approved resolutions seeking fair maps. Voters in 32 counties also have approved referendums in support. A statewide poll last year showed 70% of voters favor an end to gerrymandering. Only 20% of respondents said the Legislature should be able to skew the maps for partisan advantage.
Vos, the longest serving Assembly speaker in Wisconsin history, is unapologetic about gerrymandering for Republicans. It helps him stay in power. Similarly, former Illinois Speaker Michael Madigan — a Democrat and the longest serving legislative leader in modern U.S. history — remains a force for gerrymandering in his state, though he’s finally stepped down as speaker because of a bribery investigation.
Neither party deserves to undermine the will of voters and insulate themselves from public accountability by drawing voting districts into odd shapes that split communities of interest and protect incumbents.
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has created a panel of citizens to draw fair maps, though his commission strays from Iowa’s proven model. Iowa assigns a state agency to draw the lines with strict rules requiring compact districts and forbidding political considerations.
Vos and most of his GOP colleagues appear determined to give their party an unfair advantage, just as they did 10 years ago. What’s different this time is that the Democratic governor can veto the Republican maps.
That means the courts will likely decide where the lines are drawn. It could be a three-judge federal panel or the state Supreme Court, which wisely and unanimously rejected a Republican attempt this month to rush redistricting lawsuits to the high court.
We have much more faith in the courts to ensure fair maps than we do lawmakers or the governor. But ultimately, passing the bipartisan Iowa model is best. It won’t cost millions of dollars in needless legal expenses. What it will do is prioritize fair maps for voters over the partisan interests of entrenched politicians.