Today, the Wisconsin Supreme Court heard hours of arguments over how district maps should be drawn across the state, in a years-long partisan war over maps that will decide legislative and Congressional seats for at least the next eight years.
The oral arguments began at 9am and continued for over seven hours, with limited breaks- an unusually lengthy allotment of time for the state’s high court to hear a case.
The arguments come after the state Supreme Court ruled in November that the maps should take a “least changes” approach to the maps. This ruling was a blow to Governor Tony Evers, whose original map, with the help of the People’s Map Commission, would have made considerable change to the current map. Ultimately, Governor Evers submitted new maps that made fewer changes.
Meanwhile, the Republican-led legislature submitted their own maps, which are largely based on existing maps, and would allow the legislature to remain in the hands of Republicans. These maps were vetoed by Governor Evers.
But these are only the most talked about maps being discussed today. The Supreme Court opened the floor to outside groups to make their case for their maps as well, from Republicans in state Congress to a citizen group of mathematicians.
Today’s arguments come down to two factors: which map has the least changes, and which maps follow the Voters Rights Act of 1965.
On which map has the least change, the map submitted by the GOP legislature moves more people than the map submitted by Governor Evers. Taylor Meehan, a Federalist Society attorney on behalf of the legislature, says that this does not mean that they took the least changes.
“When a plan creates a new municipal split, that is a literal change from existing law. Existing law literally says ‘The whole county of Polk, or the whole county of this, should be in a district.’ And when the plan splits the county, or splits the town, that is a change. It is undisputed that the legislature’s plan makes the fewest changes on this metric,” Meehan says.
But Anthony Russomanno, an attorney speaking on behalf of Governor Evers, says that the legislature misinterpreted what the Supreme Court meant by “least-changes,” and that their map most closely follows the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“Everyone agrees that the governor’s map makes the least changes if you look at the math. If you look at the statistics, the governor’s map moves fewer people. If you look at the geographical, the space the districts cover, this is on page 10 on the Hunter Response, the governor’s map retains 98.5% compared to 90.6% of the Congressman’s map,” Russomanno says.
The Voters Rights Act of 1965 was a landmark piece of legislation that helped to guarantee voting rights for Black people across the county in a variety of ways, including what is known as the Gingles Test. Gingles was adopted by the US Supreme Court in 19-86 as an amendment to the Voters Rights Act. Robert Yablon, Associate Professor of Law at the UW Law School, says that this was created to help protect the voting rights of minority groups.
“In Gingles, the US Supreme Court adopted a three part test to determine whether you have a protected right under the Voters Rights Act. And under that test, first of all, you look to see whether there is a large, compact community of color. Then the other two prongs of the Gingles Test asks whether these communities of color vote distinctively from other communities. So are there communities, and specifically they are focusing on the Milwaukee area, on Black communities and Latino communites, do those communities tend to prefer different candidates from other communities, and do those other communities sometimes vote in a block to defeat those communities of color and lock them out of positions of power. If the answer is yes, you’re supposed to draw districts sensitive to those communities to ensure that they do have fair opportunity to elect representatives of their choice,” Yablon says.
While the governor argues that the legislature’s maps do not fit the criteria for the Gingles Test, specifically in the Milwaukee area, the legislature argues that Governor Evers’ maps went too far in the wrong direction, which would violate the equal protections clause of the US constitution.
The equal protections clause was just one reason why the legislature claimed that the maps submitted by the governor were illegal. Misha Tseytlin is another attorney arguing for the legislature – and argued before the US Supreme Court in a redistricting case ten years ago. He told the Court in a heated exchange that many of the proposed maps are illegal due to not having an equal number of people in every district.
“Two of the maps are plainly illegal. The governor’s map and the Hunter’s map is just plainly illegal. They don’t achieve exact population equality. They had a chance to fix that, and they didn’t,” Tseytlin says.
The Supreme Court is expected to come to a ruling within the next few weeks.
Photo courtesy: Nate Wegehaupt / WORT News Team