GOP fights challenge to gerrymandered Assembly map

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

The Wisconsin Department of Justice wants a federal court to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the redistricting map drawn by lawmakers to the benefit of the GOP.

Meanwhile, a grassroots petition drive aimed at revamping the redistricting process is getting attention in the state. The petition circulating on the Web by the nonpartisan group Common Cause Wisconsin calls on lawmakers to remove politics from redistricting decisions.

Every 10 years, state legislatures redraw the boundaries of state and federal political districts based on the results of a new U.S. Census. The intent is to reflect changes in population and ensure fair representation — one person, one vote.

But in many states, like Wisconsin, lawmakers draw the districts in a way that favors their parties.

There now are several skirmishes over redistricting maps drawn and adopted after the 2010 census, including in:

• Florida, where a court ruled that the Florida Legislature violated a pair of 2010 state constitutional amendments banning partisan redistricting. The Florida House adopted a map on Aug. 18 that contained changes for all 27 of the state’s congressional districts. 

• Virginia, where a federal court will redraw the state’s congressional districts after it became clear that lawmakers would fail to reach agreement on redistricting by a court-mandated Sept. 1 deadline. 

• North Carolina, where legislators are working on a redo of the state’s congressional map under court order.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, a federal lawsuit filed earlier this summer challenges the 2010 state Assembly map, alleging the map benefits Republicans and the boundary lines were drawn in secret, at the offices of a law firm hired by GOP leaders.

The 30-page lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Madison on behalf of 12 Democrats, alleges the map is “one of the worst gerrymanders in modern American history.” The Democrats argue that gerrymandering is unconstitutional and profoundly undemocratic. The complaint seeks a review by a panel of three judges that could put the dispute on a fast track to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice, which is headed by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel, filed a motion to dismiss the challenge in mid-August. The state argues:

• Plaintiffs do not have standing unless they live in a gerrymandered district.

• No standard exists for measuring the impact of a gerrymander on the right to legislative representation.

However, a report from Common Cause Wisconsin suggests an obvious measurement — election results. 

In the first election after redistricting, Republicans won 60 of 99 Assembly seats but Democrats won a majority of the statewide votes cast in Assembly races.

Also, a CCW report released earlier this summer shows that Wisconsin state legislative races in 2014 were far less competitive than those in 2010. Only 10.3 percent of winning candidates defeated their opponents by less than 10 percent in 2014. Four years earlier, before the new map was drawn, about 23.3 percent of races were within 10 points.

While the legal fight over the current map continues in federal court, CCW is encouraging lawmakers to pass legislation that would create a nonpartisan process for redrawing boundaries. Common Cause is a nonprofit dedicated to good government and accountability.

CCW encourages Wisconsin voters to support the nonpartisan redistricting effort via a petition.

“As Wisconsinites, voters and constituents, we call on you to reform Wisconsin’s current partisan redistricting system,” the petition states. “We look to you, our elected representatives, to bring competition back to Wisconsin’s elections, ensuring that voters have a real choice at the polls, by removing politics from — and restoring transparency to — a process that has become far too partisan, secretive and expensive.”

The petitioners propose a process similar to one that Iowa implemented in 1981, in which legislative boundaries are drawn by a nonpartisan state agency.

The goal for Wisconsin would be to establish such a process in time for redistricting after the 2020 U.S. Census.

Common Cause and other good-government groups are pushing reform in other states, including Ohio, where voters on Nov. 3 will decide a ballot initiative intended to reduce partisanship in redistricting.

In November 2016, Illinois voters could consider a constitutional amendment to create a citizens commission to draw legislative districts. In Indiana, a newly created legislative commission is studying redistricting options. 

Reform efforts also are underway in Minnesota, where gridlock over redistricting has resulted in court-drawn maps for decades.