Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) is taking a new weapon into the fight for control of the decennial redistricting process in a state where Democrats say Republicans have consistently built themselves a gerrymandered advantage.
Evers has ordered a new independent redistricting panel to draw congressional and legislative district maps after the 2020 census results come in next year. The panel, he said in an interview, would craft lines with an eye toward creating competitive districts across the state, rather than seats that are heavily skewed toward one party or the other.
“We’re creating a commission that will be meeting in public, going around to each of the congressional districts,” Evers said in an interview on the sidelines of the National Governors Association meeting in Washington. “It’s going to be clearly nonpartisan in its output.”
Independent commissions are nothing new in the world of political map-making. Six states rely on commissions made up of nonpoliticians to draw their boundaries every 10 years, including California, Washington and Arizona. Nine other states use a commission made up of politicians — usually state legislators — to draw legislative or congressional district lines.
But Evers’s plan is unique, because it stands outside the process enshrined in Wisconsin state law. The Republican-controlled state legislature still has the power to craft its own maps, and Evers’s commission is just one option they might consider.
“We will provide those maps to the legislature. Obviously they can accept them or do what they’re going to do. But at minimum, the people of Wisconsin will have two maps in front of them,” Evers told The Hill. “We believe that political pressure will be such that they will have to do something on this issue. It’s going to be good for democracy in Wisconsin.”
Republicans who control the state legislature are skeptical that a redistricting panel will be truly independent or that Evers is willing to work with them to create a bipartisan map.
“I’m sure we’ll give it due consideration, but I have a feeling when you see the people who are a part of [the commission], they’re going to be from one political persuasion,” state House Speaker Robin Vos (R) told The Hill. “In the redistricting process, it takes two to tango.”
In the past decade, Wisconsin’s usually genteel politics has devolved into a constant blood sport. After Republicans took control of the governor’s mansion and the state legislature in 2011, the GOP drew legislative district lines that virtually guaranteed they would control the majority through the entire decade.
Their advantage was on display in 2018, when Evers ousted then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) by about 1 percentage point, or about 30,000 votes. Even though he lost, Walker carried 63 of the state’s 99 legislative districts.
Republican candidates won 63 seats — only two districts that voted for Walker elected a Democratic legislator, and only two districts that voted for Evers elected a Republican. Democratic Assembly candidates won 53 percent of the statewide vote, but only 36 of 99 seats.
There are few signs that Republican legislators plan to embrace Evers’s commission and the maps it eventually produces, at the expense of their own political power.
“Rather than actually talking to the legislature, he’s creating commissions and task forces to try to work around the legislature,” Vos said. “I think we’re going to stick with the process that’s worked for the last 100 years.”
The commission does give Evers a potential advantage down the road: The maps it produces would stand as an alternative option to the legislature’s lines if and when the fight ends up in court. In an era of constant litigation over political boundaries, that showdown in court seems almost inevitable.
“It could be that they move ahead and make them in secret like they did last time and they’re as hyper-gerrymandered as possible. In that circumstance, I’ll veto that and we’ll end up either negotiating something and we have our map as a starting point, or it’ll end up in court,” Evers said. “Our map will be part of that deliberation, whether it’s Republicans and Democrats figuring it out or whether it’s the court.”
The coming redistricting fight is already shaping up as the most expensive and contentious in the nation’s history. Both Democrats and Republicans have established outside groups to raise and spend millions of dollars, both on state legislative races that will determine who draws the maps and on the litigation that is certain to follow in key states.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Republican State Leadership Committee have reported raising record sums, as big donors on both sides begin to grasp the importance of those down-ballot contests. The parties have their eyes on a handful of states — Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina — where the party that controls the state legislature will also control the fates of dozens of U.S. House districts.