The Wisconsin Legislature held an eight-and-a-half-hour public hearing on voting maps for legislative and Congressional districts on Thursday — the first such hearing in more than a decade and the only one planned. Hundreds of members of the public packed the hearing room and spilled into two overflow rooms to give testimony and watch the proceedings in the Capitol, many wearing purple “fair maps" T-shirts.
The hearing of the Joint Committee on Government Operations and State Affairs began with testimony from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, who introduced the Republican legislative leaders' proposed maps, and continued with testimony from citizens, advocates and experts who overwhelmingly opposed them.
In a combative back-and-forth with Democrats on the committee, Vos said “Democrats have a problem winning in much of Wisconsin because your agenda is clearly out of step with the reality for most of Wisconsin," and that President Joe Biden, Gov. Tony Evers, and other Democrats have won statewide races because they “break the law" in elections.
Vos said the Legislature relied on “classic redistricting principles" in drawing its new voting maps after the 2020 census. Among these, he said, was maintaining existing districts to “promote continuity of representation" and avoiding creating challengers to incumbents.
In response, Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mt. Horeb) told Vos “This is not a core principle that we in the Legislature should protect our own status as legislators."
The Republican majority in the Legislature passed a resolution last month declaring its intent to hew as closely as possible to the 2011 voting maps, which are widely regarded as among the most partisan gerrymandered maps in the country.
Responding to Democrats' objections that Republicans are simply trying to hold onto their unfair, partisan advantage in their new maps, Vos insisted, “The maps are fair; you just haven't been able to be successful."
Vos also said the 2011 maps, which the Republicans spent millions of taxpayer dollars defending in court, were a good basis for future voting maps because “they met all the constitutional criteria" and had survived legal challenges.
Committee chair Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) echoed Vos' assertion that surviving legal challenges actually bolstered the legitimacy of the 2011 maps .
However, Sachin Chheda, director of the Wisconsin Fair Elections Project and chair of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition, pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court had only ruled that partisan gerrymandering, unlike the disenfranchisement of racial minorities, was not a matter for federal courts. “They did not, as was alleged very clearly and falsely this morning, rule on the merits," Chheda said.
The only federal court ruling on Wisconsin's partisan gerrymandering came from the Western District of Wisconsin, where two judges who were Republican appointees and one judge appointed by a Democrat ruled that the maps violated the rights of Wisconsin citizens, saying they were designed to create “a permanent Republican majority."
Chheda described what he called a “natural gerrymander" in Wisconsin's political landscape, which has Republican voters spread among many rural districts, while Democratic voters are clustered in fewer districts around the state's urban areas.
“I will concede that Republicans have a slight advantage — about 2% — in Wisconsin elections," Chheda testified. “But you have five to eight times that bias in favor of Republicans in these maps."
In the 2006 and 2008 elections, Democrats won the Assembly and then the Senate, gaining control of both houses of the Legislature, Chheda reminded the committee. He acknowledged that in 2010 Republicans won back control of the Legislature “under fair maps drawn by a court."
“And then in 2012, the Democrats won even more of the vote than they had won in 2006. And they didn't get a single seat in the Assembly, and they lost the majority of the Senate," Chheda said.
The only explanation for that, he concluded, was partisan gerrymandering. “That didn't reflect bad candidates. That didn't reflect the will of the voters. It's simply a lie. It's not true, because not enough Democrats moved from one place to another in the state of Wisconsin between 2008 and 2012 to justify the massive redistribution."
Nor is it a justifiable goal to keep the old, gerrymandered maps, Chheda testified.
“Continuity is not only not required," under redistricting rules, he said, “it's wrong, immoral, and anti-democratic."
Matthew Rothschild of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign and Jay Heck of Common Cause both testified that, while Republicans moved hundreds of thousands of voters in Wisconsin into new districts in 2011, this year, according to research by the Legislative Reference Bureau, there is almost no movement; the average “core retention rate" for Assembly seats under the proposed map is 84.16%, while the average core retention rate for Senate districts is 92.21%.
“Somewhere over the last decade, Republicans got religion on core retention," Rothschild said, “because back in 2011, they retained at only a 58% rate in the Assembly. It didn't matter to them at all back then. But now that they've got a math that works for them, now they're saying Hallelujah to core retention. This is very hypocritical. Actually, it's outrageous."
Partisanship was a major focus of the hearing, with Vos insisting that the goal of Gov. Tony Evers' nonpartisan People's Maps Commission was to gain more seats for Democrats.
“There's no doubt that the process that Gov. Evers set up was intended to produce a result and he has gotten the result that he intended from the beginning," Vos said.
The commission's draft maps have produced maps that tilt slightly Republican.
Vos and LeMahieu spoke from behind posters of two large maps — one showing the serpentine districts drawn by Democrats in Illinois and one showing the blocky Wisconsin district map, which Vos said “passes the eye test."
The point — that Democrats are the real culprits when it comes to gerrymandering — was waved away by the members of the Wisconsin Fair Maps Coalition.
“I'm on the record saying Democratic gerrymandering is wrong," Chheda said, pointing out that his organization opposes the partisan maps in Illinois and Oregon.
Heck and Rothschild also said they were against Democratic gerrymandering in Illinois.
Heck and several other advocates and experts testified that the Princeton University Gerrymandering Project, which analyzed voting maps all over the country, gave the Wisconsin Legislature's new maps an F. “And lest Princeton be accused of having some partisan bias," Heck added, “they also issued F's to redistricting plans devised by majority Democrats in Illinois and Oregon."
Rothschild, Heck and former state Sen. Tim Cullen (D-Janesville) testified about the damaging effects of gerrymandering beyond building an unfair advantage for one party, including a poisoned political atmosphere in the Capitol and less responsiveness of elected officials to voters.
The last point was echoed by Sharon Johnson, an SEIU health care worker, who talked about her frustration with elected officials' opposition to mask rules and other basic safety measures during the pandemic, saying, “It's as if our legislators don't listen to us, because they don't think they have to listen."
Cullen, Rothschild and Heck spoke in support of adopting a nonpartisan redistricting system like the one in Iowa.
Citing overwhelming public support, across party lines, for nonpartisan redistricting, Rothschild pleaded, “Can we at least get a hearing on that bill that so many people in Wisconsin want to see?
“By rigging the maps again, you're not only not doing what we the people want, you're doing the opposite of what we the people want. And in the process, you're undermining people's faith in our democracy," he added.
Rothschild pointed out that issues supported by a majority of voters, including the legalization of medical marijuana, cannot even get a hearing in the Capitol.
Sen. Lena Taylor (D-Milwaukee) testified that the Republican maps violate the Voting Rights Act, holding up as an example the famous Milwaukee politician Polly Williams' old district in Milwaukee, a historically Black district that would not even have 50% Black voters under the new Republican plan.
“We lost half our representation in this body in 2012," Taylor said of Black voters. When she raised this point after the last redistricting process, she said, some of her white colleagues called her racist. “It's not racist. It's called the Voting Rights Act," she said — an issue that will almost certainly come up in federal court cases that are bound to unfold over the next six months around Wisconsin's new maps.
Calena Roberts, Wisconsin state field director of the SEIU, extended the point about racism and gerrymandering in her testimony to the committee.
“We know we sit in the most segregated state in the United States," she said. She objected to what she saw as the arrogance of Republicans on the committee for making snide remarks about Democrats and seeming unreceptive to the testimony of people like herself. “The insults, the rudeness, acting like little toddlers. … I already feel we are at a disadvantage when we're sitting in this space," she said.
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