MADISON — A state senator is looking to reintroduce a bill that would change how Wisconsin redraws its Senate and Assembly districts in 2020.
Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, is hoping to initiate a legislative change that would take the responsibility of drawing the state’s voting maps out of the hands of potentially biased legislators and assign that task to an independent entity.
Hansen, among many here in the state and even some across the country, believes Wisconsin has been gerrymandered, meaning that its voting districts have been unfairly drawn to over-represent one party and under-represent another.
“Legislators are supposed to represent the people,” Hansen said. “Wisconsin is no longer a democracy.”
Similar bills have been proposed before in Wisconsin — as recently as January 2017 — but they’ve all been rejected. Hansen commended Sen. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville, for being the only Republican to cross the aisle to support his proposals.
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A week after winning his midterm election ended on Nov. 6, Hansen announced plans to bring back his redistricting bill.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has continually dismissed this issue. Last week, he told the Wisconsin State Journal that accusations of gerrymandering in Wisconsin are “made up” and part of the Democrats’ “failed agenda.”
County by county
Part of the reason Hansen keeps trying is because he’s been bolstered by growing grassroots support in Wisconsin for voting map reform.
The Racine County Board is one of 41 county boards across the state that have passed anti-gerrymandering resolutions in the past five years, calling for the state legislature to change its voting district drawing policies.
Racine’s resolution was passed unanimously on Aug. 28.
“For years, by both parties, (Wisconsin) has been gerrymandered,” County Supervisor Janet Bernberg of Wind Point said in August. “Everyone is guilty of that. In this day and age, I think … (it would) be much fairer to have a nonpartisan group in charge of redistricting.”
Is Wisconsin gerrymandered?
After every census, Wisconsin is required to redraw its voting district lines to ensure that every elected official represents the same number of voters as each of their peers at the local, state and national levels of government.
Right now, there aren’t a lot of rules in place in Wisconsin that define how districts have to be drawn, so long as every district contains the same number of people. Hansen accuses Republicans of abusing this freedom by unfairly drawing maps in their favor in 2012, soon after Gov. Scott Walker was first elected while Republicans controlled both the state Assembly and Senate.
Hansen uses results from the Nov. 6 election as evidence of this claim.
Of the 99 Assembly elections that ended this month, 61 of them had both a Republican and a Democrat on the ballot.
Of the 38 uncontested districts (excluding independent candidates), Democrats won 29 of them, and Republicans won nine.
Like many Democrats, Hansen believes this is the result of “packed districts,” where the Republicans who drew the maps six years ago “packed” left-leaning voters in certain districts so that they wouldn’t be able to affect right-leaning districts.
As for the 61 contested elections, 55 were won by Republicans and six by Democrats. Of the two-party votes cast in those contested races, 57.68 percent of the votes went to Republicans, with 42.32 percent being cast in favor of Democrats.
Hansen believes that the close governor’s race — where Democrat Tony Evers defeated Republican Scott Walker by less than 2 percent of the total vote — is evidence that Wisconsinites are relatively evenly split between favoring Republicans and Democrats, even though Republicans control nearly two-thirds of the seats in the Assembly.
“You would think it be near even,” Hansen said. “We are not this red.”
In 2016, a federal panel of judges found that Wisconsin’s state Assembly districts were illegally gerrymandered, but the U.S. Supreme Court reset that decision in June by sending the case back to a lower court. The Supreme Court is expected to look at the case again in April 2019.
In 32 states (including Wisconsin), legislators have the sole ability to create their states’ legislative voting districts, according to The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School.
The remaining states use independent commissions or agencies to create their maps without legislators directly overseeing the process. State legislatures still have to approve the maps the independent groups created, however. In Wisconsin, the governor also has the power to veto the proposed maps.
Hansen wants to implement the Iowa Model in Wisconsin.
“It works and it doesn’t cost a lot of money,” he said.
The Iowa Model, established in that state in 1980, uses the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency — a nonpartisan group of legislative staffers — to draw maps.
The LSA is barred from using any political data in its work. Instead, the agency works to avoid breaking up cities and districts so that neighbors will be voting in the same elections, while of course ensuring that the state population is evenly distributed across each district.
After getting shut down in past proposals, having a Democrat in the governor’s seat gives Hansen hope that one of his bills may be passed. He’s also emboldened by the growing Fair Map Movement.
In addition to the 41 county boards that have passed resolutions, a local candidate — Joel Jacobsen, who lost to Vos in the 63rd Assembly District — campaigned almost exclusively on an anti-gerrymandering platform.
“We’ll continue our fair maps fight,” Jacobsen said on Nov. 6, minutes after he realized Vos would win the election. “We continue to see popular votes where constituents are not fully represented.”