The Future of Wisconsin’s Maps

Wisconsin is bracing for a political battle over their legislative and congressional maps, destined to conclude with a battle in the courts. With statewide races just around the corner, the redistricting process promises to be a highly partisan affair.

The Key Points

  • While the Democratic coalition was eroding everywhere outside urban strongholds, a Republican-gerrymandered Wisconsin led to their success in successive elections.
  • Republicans will inevitably draw maps that are unfavorable to Democrats, forcing Governor Evers to veto them and thereby sending them to the courts to decide their fate.

How did Wisconsin get here?

Wisconsin’s Democratic coalition of voters was considered relatively diverse until 2010. Although statewide races were as competitive then as they are now, Democrats had firm support in nearly every part of the state, noticeably in rural areas. Former Governor Jim Doyle (D) won re-election in 2006 by 7 points while carrying 47 out of 72 counties. The momentum of diverse Democratic support grinded to a halt in 2010 when Gov. Scott Walker (R) was elected to the office over Democrat Tom Barrett. Suffice it to say that the geographical advantage Democrats once had is gone. However, there are a few holdouts from the collapse– Ashland County in the Northwoods, and Iowa County in Southwestern Wisconsin. Wisconsin’s rural voters continue to lean towards the right 11 years onward.

Republicans drew maps in 2011 that overwhelmingly favored their party in the Assembly, Senate, and the state’s congressional seats. In 2020, despite Republicans winning only about 51% of the vote in contested Assembly seats, they currently hold 60% of the seats in that chamber. Republicans also hold five of the eight congressional seats. Under the current maps, a Democratic majority relies on a 10% overperformance from their respective candidates statewide, an unthinkable feat in Wisconsin’s current political climate. 

An exception to the pattern of overwhelming Republican majorities in both chambers of the Wisconsin Legislature came in 2011 and 2012, when Democrats won enough seats in the Senate to secure a 17-16 majority. Political fallout from Act 10 (the anti-collective bargaining bill passed in 2011), and voter turnout contributed to these gains. However, these maps were still markedly disadvantageous to Democrats, and as a result they lost their majority in 2013.

These maps were at the center of a legal battle that climbed all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2018, the court was challenged to determine whether or not partisan gerrymandering is unconstitutional. Then, in 2019, a case like the one stemming from lawsuits in Wisconsin and Maryland made its way to the Supreme Court. The 5-4 decision was one that Wisconsin Democrats did not want to hear: partisan gerrymandering is not, in fact, a violation of the Constitution. However, the defeat in the federal courts has not deterred Democrats. Since 2018, Democrats have witnessed a brief glimmer of hope in their redistricting efforts following Evers’ reinstatement to the governor’s mansion.

Where is Wisconsin now?

This year, all of the major players in Wisconsin’s political scene are focused on the redistricting process. Elected officials and candidates of all levels are likely to add their two cents to the dialogue generated by this contentious process. Evers even proposed and arranged a redistricting commission whose sole purpose is to produce fair maps that will be in place for the next 10 years. Republicans, meanwhile, argue that it is solely the job of the legislature to conduct redistricting. 

Wisconsin is already in the midst of a tense election season. Even in 2021, the focus is on the gubernatorial race and the U.S. Senate race, where Gov. Tony Evers (D) is running for re-election and several Democrats have announced their bids for Sen. Ron Johnson’s seat. (Johnson has not yet declared whether or not he will run for re-election.) 

What will the future bring for Wisconsin’s redistricting?

Simply put, the status of redistricting is a perfect storm for a highly partisan legal battle that will almost assuredly end up in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A divided government brings challenges for Wisconsin Republicans, who will likely present a map that alters the current maps to overwhelmingly favor Republican candidates.  The court may have to determine which maps should be used, how they are drawn, and by whom. The game is already set: Evers can (and likely will) veto the map proposal that lands on his desk from the legislature, a battle ensues, and Republicans gird themselves for war. According to Patrick Marley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the legislature has already agreed to pay lawyers to argue for their cause to the tune of $200,000 a month. Evers has not, to date, retained any lawyers for the process, Marley reports.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has a 4-3 conservative majority that will determine the future of Wisconsin’s maps. The justices may reject the legislature’s proposal, forcing them back to the drawing board. They could also take matters into their own hands and draw the maps themselves if they rule that the legislature’s proposal is too extreme. Or, the court may decide that the legislature drew the maps in a way that is not contrary to the Wisconsin Constitution, handing Republicans a huge victory that will be sure to send a shockwave through the state’s political circles.