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Republicans, fair maps advocates debate future of maps after redistricting lawsuit

GOP consultant Joe Handrick said Thursday at a WisPolitics panel discussion about the future of Wisconsin’s political maps that the definition of a gerrymander is “a district they don’t like.” 

Handrick, a former Republican member of the state Assembly who served as a consultant for Republicans in 2011 when they drew maps that entrenched their party’s  power for more than a decade, said repeatedly at the luncheon panel that the political dividing lines in the state don’t unfairly favor Republicans, instead, he said, they show that Democrats are bad at running campaigns. 

Wisconsin’s partisan gerrymander, in place since the 2011 redistricting process and furthered last year when the state Supreme Court affirmed maps drawn by Republican lawmakers that Gov Tony Evers had vetoed, is widely considered to be one of the most extreme partisan gerrymanders in the country. 

Responding to Handrick’s definition, Jeff Mandell — an election law attorney and board president of Law Forward, the progressive legal outfit that brought a currently pending lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the maps — said that it’s not about who wins close races in competitive districts. The important issue, Mandell said, is drawing competitive districts in the first place, reopening the feedback loop between elected officials and their constituents. 

“A gerrymander is a district that is deliberately drawn to distort the outcome and … that allows the elected official to choose their voters rather than the other way around,” Mandell said. 

“It’s not all as simple as control, the goal is democracy,” he continued. “If we have more competitive elections, if we wind up with a Legislature full of members who are more responsive to what their constituents believe and want, if we get away from the Wisconsin we’ve had for the last 13 years, where issue after issue after issue has 60, 70, 80% public support and can’t even be mentioned on the floor of the Legislature, if  we get back to the feedback mechanisms of democracy, that’s the win. It’s not about which party wins in 2024. I just think that’s overly reductive.” 

Debra Cronmiller, the executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, listed the issues that polls show have widespread support among Wisconsin voters yet have been stymied by the Republicans in control of which bills are considered on the floor of both houses. 

“There is not a lot that’s happening in the Legislature that is good for Wisconsin,” she said. “We have talked about the need for groundwater standards. We have talked about education funding. We have talked about health care expansion. We have talked about so many issues that the people of Wisconsin have come to great consensus on, and these are not even issues that are having bills introduced. This is ridiculous.”

The lawsuit challenging the maps was filed with the Wisconsin Supreme Court in August, shortly after Justice Janet Protasiewicz was sworn into office, giving the liberal wing of the Court its first majority for the first time in at least 15 years. Last week, the Court held oral arguments in the case, which is focused on three questions: if the then-conservative-majority  Court in 2022 violated the constitutional separation of powers when it chose maps that had been vetoed by the governor; if the existence of disconnected territories within districts violates the Constitution’s requirement that districts be contiguous; and, if the current maps are unconstitutional, how the Court should proceed in installing new maps. 

Rick Esenberg, the president of conservative legal firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, who argued against throwing out the maps at the oral arguments, said that the separation of powers argument was “bordering on frivolous” while the question of disconnected parts of districts could be fixed by simply absorbing those islands within their neighboring districts. 

Esenberg said that if the Court decides that any maps proposed by the Legislature and vetoed by the governor are unconstitutional because they failed the lawmaking process, the governor can’t propose maps either because only the Legislature has the constitutional authority to draw and pass maps. 

“I think that this is a case that should rise and fall on the question of contiguity and if you think that there’s a constitutional violation — this is the real separation of powers issue — the role of the court is to fix it and do nothing else.” 

Mandell responded that if the Court simply had the district “islands” absorbed into their neighbors, the maps would be malapportioned, with unequal numbers of voters in each district. He added that he thinks Republicans are making the issue too complicated. If the maps are unconstitutional, he said, the Court needs to install new maps and in installing new maps they shouldn’t favor one party over the other and instead create fairness. 

“[Esenberg] is saying this is incredibly complex,” Mandell said. “The most complicated thing about the word contiguity is how you get five syllables into eight letters. This is not complex. No one says that the maps are contiguous.” 

“I disagree with him that no matter how you draw the maps, you’re gonna wind up with a Republican majority but the goal here of this lawsuit is not a pro-Democratic majority,” he continued. “The goal of the lawsuit is to have fair maps that restore the basic feedback mechanisms of Wisconsin democracy where we have elected officials who are chosen by the voters, rather than the elected officials getting to choose who gets to vote. That’s the goal. It’s that simple.”

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originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F12%2F01%2Frepublicans-fair-maps-advocates-debate-future-of-maps-after-redistricting-lawsuit%2F by Henry Redman

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