The Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Assembly has voted to change how the state’s legislative maps are drawn – a major shift in strategy as Republicans face the possibility that the new liberal majority on the Wisconsin Supreme Court could throw out the current electoral maps, which give the GOP an advantage.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos introduced the redistricting plan Tuesday in a surprise move. The bill went straight to a vote Thursday without a public hearing, drawing the ire of Democrats.
The plan directs the staff of the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau to redraw maps and establishes a redistricting advisory committee composed of five members. If approved, the state Senate majority and minority leaders and the state Assembly speaker and minority leader would each appoint one person to the commission. The four political appointees would together appoint the fifth member to serve as chairperson.
“Why should the people of Wisconsin trust this bill and not have any sort of input into what it says?” Democratic state Rep. Deb Andraca said during a virtual news conference Thursday before the vote. “They expect us to want to just embrace this particular plan without any scrutiny.”
The maps would have to be drawn and adopted by January 31, 2024, Vos said. According to the bill, both the Assembly and the state Senate must approve the maps. An amendment to the plan specifies that the maps must receive bipartisan approval.
The data used to draw maps would also be released, Vos said.
An effort to model Iowa
Under the bill, Wisconsin’s legislature would vote up or down on the five-member committee’s proposed district lines. The bill would also bar lawmakers from offering amendments to change districts’ makeup and render such a committee toothless.
The requirement of a bipartisan vote is short of what Gov. Tony Evers and other Democrats have sought: a three-fourths majority, ensuring broad support rather than a single member of the minority party being enough to advance newly drawn district lines.
The proposed measure requires district boundaries to be compact, and for drafters to ignore the political makeup and demographics of those districts. It also requires incumbency to be ignored, raising the potential for current lawmakers to be drawn out of their seats – and potentially into the same districts as other lawmakers.
Under the current system, the lawmakers draw legislative boundaries after each census. Vos has said his framework is intended to resemble the Iowa process for redistricting, which is considered a model for fair legislative maps.
State Supreme Court looms large
Vos has pushed for the new plan to render moot lawsuits filed with the state’s Supreme Court challenging the current maps. The pending court battle has embroiled the state Supreme Court’s newest member, liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz, whose win gave liberals a majority on the court for the first time in fifteen years.
Vos has floated impeaching Protasiewicz if she does not recuse herself from the cases, citing comments she made while campaigning in which she called the maps “rigged.”
The state’s commission on judicial conduct dismissed complaints citing the comments earlier this year.
Protasiewicz has asked for briefs on the impact of the commission’s order on her need for recusal. The deadline for briefs is September 18.
Threats to impeach Protasiewicz prompted Wisconsin Democrats to launch a $4 million campaign to rally voters against possible impeachment. Vos has made clear the bill is at least partially a way to cool tensions surrounding that possibility.
“The only thing I said is we could do this instead,” Vos said Wednesday on WISN-AM. “My first goal is not to impeach a member of the State Supreme Court.”
Vos’s redistricting plan passed the state Assembly with one Democratic vote as state Rep. LaKeisha Myers of Milwaukee sided with the majority.
“Action is what we were sent here to do,” Myers said. “Let me offer congratulations to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. It took you a long time to get here, but, amen, it came.”