MADISON — Amid claims of unconstitutionality and with lawsuits looming, Republicans and Democrats continued to butt heads Monday over the GOP’s recently introduced plan to redraw legislative districts in the state.
At a meeting of the Committee on Assembly Organization, Democrats questioned the logic of rushing the plan through the Legislature, when local officials statewide are still working to finish their own suggestions for redrawing the boundaries of Wisconsin’s congressional and legislative districts.
“I don’t think much will change if we wait a week or a month … in respect of local officials,” said Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha.
But committee Republicans slammed that logic, noting that even a redistricting lawsuit proposed by former Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson — a Democrat — is grounded in concerns that the Legislature is acting too slowly on the matter.
Robson, with 14 other plaintiffs, filed the lawsuit June 10, asking a panel of judges in federal court in Milwaukee to intervene in forming a redistricting map since the Legislature hadn’t done so.
Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, R-Horicon, addressed the lawsuit, suggesting that Democrats were sending mixed messages about how to proceed with the redistricting process.
“So are we supposed to not go, or should we go?” Fitzgerald said. “I’m not sure if (Democrats and Robson) have connected … but that would be contradictory to what you guys are saying.”
Plan could affect recall outcomes, Dems say
Monday’s debate displayed the ongoing tension between Republicans and Democrats over the redistricting plan, which shifts the boundaries of the legislative and congressional districts in Wisconsin.
Federal law requires that legislative district maps must be redrawn after every 10-year census to reflect changes in Wisconsin’s population. The task always falls to the majority party.
According to Census data, Wisconsin gained more than 300,000 residents in the past 10 years, with areas like Dane County and Fox Valley showing the largest population increases.
The proposed changes push several lawmakers and recall candidates out of their current districts while changing the political makeup of others, adjustments that Democrats say were designed to target liberal lawmakers unfairly while heavily favoring the majority party.
For example, the redrawn map would move former De Pere Mayor Nancy Nusbaum out of Senate District 2, where she is running against state Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, in the upcoming recall elections. Likewise, state Rep. Fred Clark, D-Baraboo, would be swept out of Senate District 14, where he faces state Sen. Luther Olsen, R-Ripon, in a recall.
Democrats say those shifts are far from coincidental.
“Make no mistake about it, this plan is to ensure that the Republicans can maintain their home jobs and build upon their Republican majority,” Barca said.
But Republican lawmakers say that re-examining the state’s legislative districts is simply part of their jobs.
“We’re fulfilling our constitutional requirement to properly reapportion the state’s legislative and congressional districts,” said Fitzgerald and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, in a joint statement.
Democrats on the organizational committee failed to delay the measure Monday, as a 4-3 party-line vote puts the redistricting proposal before the Assembly on July 19.
The Assembly Committee on Homeland Security and State Affairs will debate the plan Wednesday.
Plan and debate par for the course, experts say
Experts said neither the debate over the plan nor the changes it contains is surprising, as the redistricting process is always inherently a partisan power grab, regardless of which party currently helms the Capitol.
“If Democrats were in charge, they’d do the same thing,” said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The party in power (gets) a chance at this once in a decade … and those changes are locked in for 10 years. It’s really an amazing power. You don’t know whether you’re going to be in office in two years or four years and if there are recalls, even sooner. But a map is something you can affect that will last … if you’re the majority party, you just take advantage.”
Burden agreed with Barca that Republicans are aiming to gain more seats with the map, but cautioned that toying with the district lines is a delicate balance.
“The Republicans have a pretty sizable majority in the Assembly but a pretty narrow majority in the Senate, and Democrats had both of those a few years ago, so they realize that’s tenuous,” he said. “You can’t go too far with that, because if you stretch your voters too far, you may end up creating some seats that are in play. The party that draws the lines has to be careful not to be too greedy.”
More lawsuits likely
Except for Robson’s lawsuit, no legal challenges have been brought against the plan, though Barca said he had heard rumblings of lawsuits among minority and voter’s rights groups. Burden said he was sure more challenges would surface soon, but that such legal wrangling is always part of the redistricting process.
“There certainly will be lawsuits. (Barca is) right about that,” he said. “Any redistricting plan in any state is going to have lawsuits from people who are unhappy with it, and if it’s Democrats or minority groups who file the (lawsuits), they’re going to have largely voting rights concerns.”
If lawsuits are filed, the redistricting process could be redirected to the courts, as it was in Wisconsin the previous three times the maps were redrawn.
Barca said he was unsure if the duty would fall to state or federal court, though he was hoping for the latter, as the state Supreme Court is ruled by a conservative-wing majority and plagued with controversy following one justice’s allegations that she was choked by another.
“Given how polarized our state courts are … it probably would make more sense for the federal courts to hear it,” he said.
But even if the plan goes before a panel of judges in the federal court, it’s still likely that the Legislature — and thus the Republican majority — would end up altering and passing it, Burden said.
“If a lawsuit is filed that raises some constitutional issues or voting rights issues, the courts may weigh in on it, but I suspect they’d just kick the maps back to the Legislature and say, ‘Try this again,’” Burden said. “In the end, the Republican majority will get what it wants. That’s one of the rights that comes with being the majority.”