Wisconsin senate adopts new legislative maps that could undo gerrymandering

The Wisconsin state senate voted on Tuesday to adopt legislative maps drawn by Democratic governor Tony Evers – inching the state closer to undoing the extreme gerrymander that has ensured Republican control of the state for more than a decade.

The vote from the Republican-dominated legislature is a sign that the years-long battle over Wisconsin’s legislative maps may be finally drawing to a close, giving Democrats a chance to win control of the state legislature in upcoming elections for the first time since 2012.

The vote is the result of a December ruling from the Wisconsin supreme court that the current state assembly and senate maps are unconstitutional, ordering the state to adopt new legislative maps before the 2024 election – and setting a mid-March deadline. Republican and Democratic lawmakers, the governor and multiple third party groups submitted revised maps to the court for consideration, and in a 1 February report, consultants hired by the court to review them said that the GOP-drawn maps maintained the partisan gerrymander and “do not deserve further consideration”. The maps submitted by Democrats retained a Republican advantage, the consultants found, but to a much reduced degree.

Democrats in the senate overwhelmingly voted against the bill only after attempting to send it back to committee for review, alleging that because the bill would not go into effect until fall 2024, it was designed to protect Republicans from special elections and recall efforts in the meantime. Instead, they argued, the state supreme court should pick legislative maps to implement. The court could potentially pick maps that benefit Democratic lawmakers more than governor Evers’ maps.

“We should let the supreme court continue to do its job to put in place a fair map in just a couple weeks,” said Democratic senator Mark Spreitzer.

The maps still need to be approved by the state assembly and then signed by Evers to go into effect. Democratic governor Tony Evers has signaled he would sign the legislation if it comes to his desk. Republican assembly speaker Robin Vos previously said he was open to Evers’ maps, and the assembly could vote on them as soon as this afternoon.

Marquette University researcher John Johnson found that Evers’ maps still give Republicans a slight edge at retaining their legislative majorities, but by a much narrower margin than the current maps.

By accepting Evers’ maps, the senate Republicans avoid rolling the dice on a court-drawn map that could be less favorable to them.

“The court will likely pick one of the other three maps,” said Republican Senator Devin LeMahieu. “We’re going to end this sham litigation and pass the governor’s map.”

This fight was set in motion when liberal judge Janet Protasiewicz won an April 2023 state supreme court race, giving liberals a majority on the court for the first time in more than a decade. Protasiewicz had telegraphed her views of the Republican gerrymander during the election, calling the maps “rigged”. Legislative Republicans spent months threatening to impeach her if she didn’t recuse herself from the case, but dropped the issue after consulting with former Wisconsin supreme court justices who recommended against pursuing impeachment.

Wisconsin’s current legislative maps, drawn by Republicans, are among the most gerrymandered in the country. The GOP in Wisconsin has strong majorities in both houses of the state legislature, holding nearly twice as many seats as Democrats in the assembly and senate even though statewide races are often decided by razor-thin margins. These new maps will erase much of that partisan advantage.

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