Wisconsin redistricting: Republican resolution draws Democrat ire

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison

A resolution from Wisconsin Republicans calling for new political boundary lines to adhere as closely as possible to existing congressional and legislative districts drew criticism Thursday from Democrats, who have long argued that the existing maps are gerrymandered and unconstitutional.

A GOP-controlled state Assembly committee on Thursday approved putting the resolution up for a vote before the full Assembly on Tuesday. It lays out parameters for any maps submitted to the Assembly as it moves ahead with the once-a-decade task of redistricting.

One of the guidelines in the resolution calls for retaining "as much as possible the core of existing districts, thus maintaining 11 existing communities of interest, and promoting the equal opportunity to vote by minimizing disenfranchisement."

An argument Democrats make in a federal redistricting lawsuit is that the current Republican-drawn maps, which were approved in 2011, should be declared unconstitutional because of population changes over the past decade as reflected in the latest census numbers. Democrats don't want the new maps to be based on the current ones, which solidified Republican majorities in the Legislature.

Attorney Doug Poland, who represents voting rights advocates in the federal redistricting lawsuit, called the Republican resolution "a brazen attempt to try to say that it is the public policy of Wisconsin that the majority party is entitled to entrench itself and its sitting legislators in power for as long as they choose to do so, voters be damned."

He said it’s the exact opposite of what the GOP-controlled Legislature did when creating maps in 2011 when it "took a wrecking ball" to the existing districts to redraw them "to gerrymander themselves in control for the entire decade."

"Now the Legislature wants to say that the public policy of the state will be to cement in place the ruling party and all of its currently sitting members," Poland said. "It really is quite shocking."

Republican Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke said the resolution was not about helping the Republicans' position in court. The Legislature is backing a lawsuit that the Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear. Republicans are opposing the Democratic lawsuit in federal court.

Steineke downplayed concern about the intent of the resolution, saying it was an attempt to be transparent about the parameters for considering maps submitted to a website Republicans established to accept ideas from a map-drawing commission established by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers or any member of the public.

"It’s about continuity of representation," Steineke said of the guideline related to disrupting current districts as little as possible. "The parameters of reapportionment have always been the same, trying to keep districts compact, contiguous, keep communities of like interest together."

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An Associated Press analysis found that Republicans won about 16 more U.S. House seats in 2018 and held on to seven more state legislative chambers, including the Wisconsin Assembly, than would have been expected to based on their average share of the vote in congressional districts across the country.

Republicans are accepting maps from the public until Oct. 15. The Legislature has not said when exactly it will release its plan or vote on it. A three-judge federal court panel on Tuesday said it wants to conclude a trial over the Democratic-backed lawsuit by the end of January.

Democratic state Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee, questioned the need for the resolution, noting that Republicans refuse to take up a Democratic plan calling for the creation of a nonpartisan redistricting commission.

"Look, they didn't need to put down in writing in a resolution that they want to maintain their gerrymander," Goyke said. "This is maintaining partisan gerrymandering and trying to enshrine it as a resolution when what we should be doing is letting people choose their representatives rather than their representatives choosing their people."

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