Federal judge orders new voting boundaries be drawn

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- A federal court on Tuesday asked the parties in a lawsuit over two Milwaukee voting districts to collaborate on drawing new boundaries, a request that means legislators won't be called back into a special session to redraw the maps themselves.

The court said it would have preferred that lawmakers fix the maps because designing new election maps is their responsibility, but that the Legislature declined its invitation to do so. So the judges are now asking the state elections board to collaborate with the groups suing it -- Democrats and an immigrant-rights group -- on fixing the maps.

At issue are two districts that a panel of federal judges ruled last week were drawn in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The judges said the newly drawn boundaries split up a Hispanic voting bloc, weakening its power to elect Latino candidates.

The court ordered that the two districts be redrawn, but that the rest of the maps remain unchanged.

Voter maps are redrawn every 10 years to ensure that political districts across the state each encompass about the same number of voters. The current maps were drawn in secrecy by Republicans and signed into law last year by GOP Gov. Scott Walker.

According to Tuesday's decision, the state and plaintiffs should work together on a proposal that would bring the district boundaries into compliance with the law. The two sides are to submit their proposal by Monday. If they can't agree on a recommendation, each side, as well as any interested third parties, can submit their own proposals along with a legal justification for their suggested configuration.

The court will then select a final map.

"I'm very optimistic we will be able to reach an agreement," said Peter Earle, the attorney for plaintiff Voces de la Frontera, a Latino-rights group.

The defendant is the state elections board, the Government Accountability Board, which is being represented by the state Department of Justice. A DOJ spokeswoman said Tuesday that a response would be forthcoming.

Some observers had wondered whether the Legislature, which wrapped up its session earlier this month, would have to be called back into a special session to redraw the two districts. But the court acknowledged the difficulty of a legislative solution following the recent resignation of a Republican state senator, whose departure leaves state Senate Republicans and Democrats in a 16-16 deadlock.

The shift in control meant that the prospect of lawmakers being able to agree on a solution was "virtually impossible," the court wrote.