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Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled Assembly on Thursday passed a sweeping redistricting reform plan that takes the power of drawing maps out of the hands of lawmakers and gives it to nonpartisan staff.
But Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has all but promised to veto the bill that he called “bogus,” even though it largely resembled a nonpartisan redistricting plan he’s pushed for years.
The vote shortly before midnight on the rapidly moving proposal came just two days after Republicans introduced the redistricting bill. The proposal caught Democrats and advocates for redistricting reform by a surprise in a state widely regarded as having some of the most gerrymandered maps in the country.
The bill must also clear the Republican-controlled Senate and be signed by Evers to become law.
Democrats, suspicious of Republican motives, urged opposition to the proposal, saying it’s all a ruse designed to circumvent the newly liberal-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court from throwing out the Republican-drawn maps.
Republicans urged Democrats to come around and support the measure, which largely mirrored what they had been fighting more than a decade to achieve. Democrats were skeptical and said they didn’t trust any plan put forward by Republicans, who have long fought giving up full control over redistricting.
“You made a promise to people you represent and you have a chance to actually make it happen,” Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said to Democrats after recounting their long support for nonpartisan redistricting. “It’s a good day today. You should be proud.”
The Assembly passed the bill 64-32, with one Democrat joining all Republicans in support after a series of amendments were adopted that require bipartisan votes to pass any maps and remove the power for the Legislature to make changes to the maps drawn by nonpartisan staff.
The maps drawn could not favor a political party, incumbent legislator, or other person or group, according to the bill.
If the bill becomes law, new maps would have to be drawn by Jan. 31 to be in effect for the 2024 election.
“This is the one,” said Republican Rep. Scott Krug to skeptical Democrats. “This is the holy grail. This is the thing I’ve heard about in my district for years.”
The drama is playing out amid a continued Republican threat of impeachment against the Supreme Court justice who gave liberals majority control in August if she doesn’t step down from hearing a pair of redistricting lawsuits.
Democrats have pushed for redistricting reform ever since Republicans drew maps in 2011.
Evers introduced a system in 2019 for drawing maps that very closely resembles the Republican bill passed Thursday. Under both plans, staff with the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau would be charged with drawing the maps.
That’s how it works in Iowa, where legislative staffers 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.
There’s one key difference between what Evers and advocates in Wisconsin — including a coalition pushing for redistricting reform — have been calling for. Under their plans, on the third try it would take a three-fourths majority in the Legislature to pass a map, essentially ensuring it would require bipartisan support.
Republicans amended the bill Thursday to require that any map passed must have bipartisan votes, but only a simple majority. Republicans also removed the ability for the Legislature to make changes to the map as forwarded by the nonpartisan staff.
Democrats and those pushing for redistricting reform say Vos and Republicans are being disingenuous by voting on the bill less than 48 hours after introduction with no public hearing and no consultation with groups who have been working on redistricting for years.
“You bring us a half-baked bill with no public input and call it a path forward,” Democratic Rep. Kalan Haywood said in urging opposition.
Democrats are pinning their hopes on the new liberal-controlled Wisconsin Supreme Court ordering that new maps be drawn that are more beneficial to them.
There are two pending lawsuits before the Wisconsin Supreme Court seeking new maps. Vos has threatened to pursue impeachment against liberal Justice Janet Protasiewicz if she does not recuse herself from those cases because she called the current maps “unfair” and “rigged” during her campaign.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has not said whether it will hear the redistricting challenges.