The last time Wisconsin underwent redistricting — the process of drawing electoral district boundaries — in 2011, state politics became more polarized and elected representatives became less responsive to constituents.
That’s according to testimony from 13 members of the public and two experts, who spoke Thursday during the People’s Maps Commission’s virtual public hearing in the 6th Congressional District.
The People’s Maps Commission is a non-partisan redistricting commission, composed of working-class Wisconsinites from each congressional district, with the goal of drawing impartial maps.
Every 10 years, when the new census data is released, electoral boundaries are redrawn, carrying large implications for voters and elections.
In his testimony to the People's Maps Commission, Fair Elections Project Director Sachin Chheda said 2011 was the first time the state was truly gerrymandered, meaning boundaries were intentionally manipulated to establish an unfair political advantage for one party.
“It was the most successful rigging of a map in modern American history,” Chheda said of the 2011 redistricting, adding that it was orchestrated by the Republican-controlled Wisconsin State Legislature.
A legacy of fair maps
Prior to 2011, Chheda noted Wisconsin was relatively unique in that it had not experienced gerrymandering in the congressional or state legislative map before.
Historically, he said Wisconsin used county lines to draw electoral maps, with average population counties forming one district, rural counties combining to form a district and large urban counties would be split.
“They really adhered to county lines as a clear value,” Chheda said.
In the late 1960s, the Supreme Court instituted the “one person, one vote” requirement, which required congressional and state Legislative districts to be of the same population, Chheda noted.
As a result, the 1971 redistricting in Wisconsin “basically had to start from scratch” because the lines could no longer be drawn based on county lines, he added.
Because it was “a different era in politics,” in which the state was under a functional split control by both Republicans and Democrats, Chheda said the 1971 redistricting map was “perfectly fair” to both sides.
For additional maps from 1981, 1991 and 2001, Wisconsin remained under split control, resulting in the maps being sent to the courts, he said, noting “by all accounts, those maps were generally pretty fair.”
“The Democrats never gerrymandered, and the Republicans never had a chance to gerrymander until we got to 2011,” Chheda said. “That was the first time in modern American history that there was gerrymandering in the Wisconsin Legislative district map.”
When Republicans drew the maps in 2011, Chheda said they did so behind closed doors, using sophisticated computer programs to draw the maps and repeatedly violated Wisconsin open records law.
Republicans not only refused to turn over supporting documents, but they also deleted documents that were meant to be public records and used their lawyers to work around open records laws, Chheda noted.
“The lawyers that had been retained by the Legislature in 2011 — just like the lawyers that were retained by the Legislature here in 2021 — didn't think that they worked for the whole Legislature, they only worked for the leadership,” Chheda said. “If you look at the contract that they wrote then and the contract that they've written now, that has now become public, they only report to the Senate majority leader and the Assembly speaker.”
As a result, the lawyers wouldn’t turn information over to other members of the Legislature, Chheda noted.
Following a series of state Senate recalls, he said Democrats briefly took control of the chamber in the summer of 2012 and asked the lawyers to turn over their files.
“Even at that point, they didn’t turn over all the files,” Chheda said, adding the files that were turned over were put on a public website by Democrats to increase transparency.
The lawyers refused to turn over all the files until a federal court ordered them to “turn over physical hard drives,” Chheda said, noting one of the hard drives had been smashed with a hammer to prevent information from being revealed.
“If you have to go to those lengths, violating a federal court order and violating state open records law to hide what you're doing, the people's business can't be done,” Chheda said, adding that Assembly Speaker Robin Vos fought court subpoenas to avoid being deposed. “Every step of the way, they were trying to hide what they were doing.”
Ramifications from 2011
Because the 2011 map was drawn “top down,” with Legislative districts drawn first, Chheda said counties and cities have been split into multiple districts.
For example, following the 2011 redistricting, Winnebago County Clerk Sue Ertmer said her county was split into two congressional districts.
Ertmer noted this caused a bit of confusion for voters and created additional work for the county clerk’s office because the county had to prepare multiple ballot types.
“It was much simpler when we were one congressional district; we went from three ballot styles to six,” she said. “That breaks up the [state] Senate and Assembly districts and their congressional district, giving smaller pockets of electors in each of those districts, which eliminates the confidentiality of votes for some people.”
Another community split by the 2011 redistricting was the city of Sheboygan, according to Calvin Potter, a former member of the state Assembly and Senate representing Sheboygan.
“The city has been split,” he said, noting the northern part of the city and the southern part of the city are in different Legislative districts.
A Democrat has not won a state Legislative election in Sheboygan since 2010, Potter noted, adding the city had traditionally elected Democrats in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s and early 2000s.
“The people who have over the years elected Democrats are totally disenfranchised,” Potter said, adding that primary elections decide representatives instead of general elections.
This trend of primary elections taking more importance has caused both parties to drift toward extremes, which has eroded traditional bipartisan support for education, transportation and agriculture, Chheda said.
“On all of these fronts, the partisan divide in Wisconsin has grown and the consensus that I believe that Wisconsin people still hold in their heart has simply been ignored by the Legislature in Madison,” he said.
Fighting for fair maps
In January 2020, Gov. Tony Evers announced he was creating a non-partisan redistricting commission to create fair maps, known as the People’s Maps Commission.
The commission has since held virtual hearings with seven of the eight congressional districts.
During its public hearing with the 6th Congressional District, Ertmer and Chheda provided the People’s Maps Commission with advice to help them in their mission.
Ertmer advised the commission to work with municipal clerks, school districts and local chambers of commerce and emphasized the importance of local input.
She’d like to see “clean lines” without gerrymandering “because nobody likes to see that.”
“Explain this process to people, so they understand that it was done in a reasonable, non-partisan way, for the better of all of our electors,” Ertmer said.
Similarly, Chheda asked the commission to be transparent in redistricting, and to work from the “bottom up” by working with local officials to focus on local districts before looking at legislative districts.
He also told the commission to “forget incumbents” by not considering where incumbents live and not worrying about whether incumbents will have to face each other in an election.
“This is not about protecting politicians,” Chheda said. “We do not want a Democratic map or a Republican map.”
He added that the commission should push through the attacks from those opposed to non-partisan redistricting to ensure their maps are reflective of the will of the people.
Chheda anticipates that if the Legislature draws its own map, the governor will veto it. But if the commission draws a fair, non-partisan map, he believes the courts will see that and act accordingly.
“We’ve seen some ability in the courts to put aside partisan interests,” he said. “If your product can stand up to a comparison with the product the Legislature puts forward and if you guys are doing this right, then what you're doing in the litigation and what you're doing in the public debate, is saying ‘We can do this better.’”