Wisconsin's Democratic governor rejects GOP's surprise redistricting plan

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Republican Wisconsin Assembly Republicans announce plans to create a nonpartisan redistricting process in the battleground state ahead of the 2024 election on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, in Madison, Wis. The move preempts a ruling on redistricting cases by the state Supreme Court's new liberal majority. (AP Photo/Harm Venhuizen)

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin Democratic Gov. Tony Evers shot down as “bogus” a surprise plan Republicans floated Tuesday that would have the Legislature approve new maps drawn by nonpartisan staff, preempting the state Supreme Court from tossing the current GOP-drawn boundaries.

The Republican move comes as Wisconsin justices are considering two Democratic-backed lawsuits seeking to toss the current maps, first enacted in 2011, that are among the most gerrymandered in the country and have helped Republicans increase their majority.

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Republicans have long opposed plans put forward by Democrats to enact a nonpartisan redistricting process. But now, faced with the likelihood that the liberal-controlled state Supreme Court was going to throw out their maps ahead of the 2024 election, Republicans proposed enacting a new system modeled after neighboring Iowa.

“If you’re sick of the arguing, if you’re sick of the vitriol, if you want people to work together, this is a better way for us to do it,” Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said at a news conference.

But minutes later, Evers came out against the plan that he would have to sign in order for it to become law.

“Republicans are making a last-ditch effort to retain legislative control by having someone Legislature-picked and Legislature-approved draw Wisconsin’s maps,” Evers said in a statement. “That is bogus.”

Under the bill, the maps would be drawn by the Legislative Reference Bureau, nonpartisan staff who work for the Legislature. Legislators would then vote up or down on the plan, and if passed it would then go to the governor for final approval.

The maps drawn could not favor a political party, incumbent legislator, or other person or group, according to the bill.

That is closely modeled after Iowa's redistricting process, but that is not entirely devoid of politics.

Legislative staff there use nonpartisan criteria to draw districts that are then subject to an up or down vote by the Legislature and a potential gubernatorial veto. After the 2020 census, Iowa’s Republican-led Senate voted along party lines to reject the first maps produced by staff, sending them back for another try. The Legislature then accepted the second version, which resulted in Republicans winning all four of the state’s congressional districts in the 2022 elections. Democrats had held at least one district for the previous two decades.

Evers said the Wisconsin Legislature “cannot be trusted to appoint or oversee someone charged with drawing fair maps.”

“Wisconsinites deserve a redistricting process that’s free of partisanship and interference from politicians, and it’s never been clearer that today’s Legislature cannot be trusted with that important responsibility,” Evers said.

Democratic state Sen. Mark Spreitzer said it was disingenuous for Republicans to propose the plan after years of fighting nonpartisan redistricting.

“Speaker Vos doesn’t do anything unless it benefits him and his gerrymandered Republican majority,” Spreitzer said in a statement.

The Assembly was going to vote on the measure Thursday. It would then head to the Senate, where Republicans hold a 22-11 majority. If approved there, it would then go to Evers.

Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu did not respond to request for comment.

“This debate over the years has really undermined the respect of the people in the governing process and in the belief that we are truly being represented,” said Republican Rep. Joel Kitchens, who joined with Vos and dozens of other Republican lawmakers at the news conference. “So I think it really is the time to get it done.”

Vos said he preferred the current system for drawing maps — which gives full authority to the Legislature — but “sometimes you have to listen and you change your mind.” Vos said the proposal would also avoid wasting millions of dollars fighting the two pending redistricting lawsuits and a possible impeachment.

Vos and other Republicans have floated the possibility of impeachment if newly elected Justice Janet Protasiewicz doesn't recuse from the redistricting cases because she called the current maps “unfair” and “rigged” and accepted nearly $10 million in campaign donations from the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

Protasiewicz's win in April flipped majority control of the court from conservative to liberal for the first time in 15 years.

Republican support for a nonpartisan redistricting plan came days after the Wisconsin Democratic Party announced a $4 million campaign to pressure Republicans to back down from impeaching Protasiewicz. A six-figure TV ad buy targeting 20 Republican lawmakers to run on Fox News was announced hours before Vos announced his plan.

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Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report from Jefferson City, Missouri.