The Difficulty of Defining “Fairness” in the Wisconsin Redistribution Process


Transcription to come.

In January 2020, Governor Tony Evers issued an executive order creating a new redistribution committee, which he named the “People’s Maps Commission”. The task of the commission was to draw fair and impartial maps that would be used in state elections over the next decade.

“I believe, and the people of Wisconsin as well, that people should be able to choose their elected officials, not the other way around,” the governor said in his state of the state address this month.

When Annemarie McClellan volunteered to serve as commissioner, she didn’t expect the COVID-19 pandemic to delay the census and extend the redistribution process until the end of 2021.

In addition to delaying the release of the 2020 census data that informs the redistribution process, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the new People’s Maps Commission to meet virtually (Credit: PBS Wisconsin).

“It’s been a long process,” McClellan said. “A lot of us thought that, you know, by the end of April, the beginning of May, we would be done and we could get on with our lives… but we haven’t. We’ve made it this far. see until the end. ”

Census data arrived in August and redistribution lawsuits have already been filed in Wisconsin. During this time, the commission gathered virtual and written testimonies from thousands of citizens and experts.

But no one can yet answer the defining question surrounding the redistribution: what makes a map “fair”?

“When people think of fairness to the public, it’s like, does that represent the greatest will of the mass of the public?” McClellan said.

Joe Handrick is a former Republican Assembly representative, but he is best known for his work on redistribution for Republicans over the past decades.

“Justice is in the eye of the beholder,” he said.

Handrick pointed out that the law requires districts to be contiguous, have a nearly equal population, try to keep communities together, and follow the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 when it comes to minority representation.

Joe Handrick sits with a blue curtain in the back

Joe Handrick, a former Republican State Assembly representative, helped draw the current Wisconsin state and congressional districts, which he says follow state and federal laws despite criticism Democrats that they represent an unfair partisan Gerrymander. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

“There are other people who define fair cards as’ What’s the political outcome? “” Handrick said. “Do the Democrats, [or] do Republicans get enough seats? But this is not defined or expected anywhere in the statutes or in the Constitution. ”

Jordan Ellenberg is professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When it comes to what constitutes a fair map, Ellenberg said many Wisconsin people might be asking the wrong questions.

“The word ‘fair’ is a question of philosophy and a question of ethics and a question of law,” said Ellenberg. “There’s no real right answer to what’s right, so you can say, ‘Well, what are we even doing? Like, why am I talking about it here? Because there is a right answer to what is unfair. It’s a different question.

According to Ellenberg, the best example of unfair maps are the current Congressional and Statehouse districts of Wisconsin, drawn by Republicans a decade ago.

“In my professional opinion, the current map that we have is one where it’s very clear, whatever metric you would use, that this map was prepared for the benefit of a party,” Ellenberg said. .

If the cards were done, Joe Handrick was one of the chefs. In 2011, Handrick worked for a private law firm that Republicans hired to draw the current maps. But Handrick said he doesn’t think these cards constitute a gerrymander.

“Did we create a map that created the Republican majorities? No.” Handrick asserted. “The geography of Wisconsin and the concentration of Democratic voters create the Republican majority.”

This last point is an area where Handrick and Ellenberg agree. In a statewide election, Wisconsin is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats. Ellenberg said he could create thousands of computer-generated cards to test what the average number of wins should be for each party in the assembly.

“Under these conditions of exact or even equal distribution of voters, how many Republicans would there be in the State Assembly? And like, no spoiler. I’m fair [going to] tell you the answer is probably around 55, ”Ellenberg said.

Jordan Ellenberg sits outside with a railing and a lake in the back.

University of Wisconsin-Madison math professor Jordan Ellenberg describes how the partisan makeup of elected officials in Wisconsin falls short of expectations based on the state’s tightly divided electorate (PBS Wisconsin).

This is because a lot of Wisconsin voters who tend to vote Democrats are concentrated in the cities. So while Democrats can rack up huge margins in certain assembly races, Republicans get their legislative majority in districts designed to give them 60% of the vote.

Ellenberg said that depending on where supporters live, the range of safe assembly seats for Republicans should be in the mid-1950s, not the 61 seats the party currently holds.

“There isn’t a single answer, but there is a reasonable range,” Ellenberg said. “And, 62 to 63 isn’t in that range. It’s a very long way off that basically never gets there unless you build a big advantage.”

Handrick argued that his party’s majority credit should go to the quality Republican candidates, not just the cards he helped draw.

“You have to remember that Republicans won a few seats which are actually Democratic seats on top of that,” Handrick said. “So it’s 57, 58 [seats]. The map probably explains the difference between that and the 60 or 61 seats [Republicans are] To.”

McClellan said the People’s Cards Commission ‘s number one priority is not which party wins, but to keep “communities of interest” intact. Unfortunately, just like fair cards, there is no definition for a community of interest. Often this means that counties, towns and villages remain in the same district.

Annemarie McClellan sits in a room with a wooden side table and a marble wall to the back

Annemarie McClellan represents Wisconsin’s 3rd District on the People’s Maps Commission, which Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat, formed to help guide the state’s redistribution process. (Credit: PBS Wisconsin)

“It could be the school districts,” McClellan said. “It’s one thing we’ve heard that a lot of people say, ‘I want to keep [my school district] intact ‘because sometimes school districts cross municipalities or even county boundaries. ”

McClellan said the commission would not ignore the partisan outcome of which card it chooses because so many see it as the ultimate fairness test.

“Everything else being equal, if a card shows it’s fairer, partisan, we would go with that,” she said.

Handrick says any card produced by the commission should be considered a Democratic card.

“It is not a non-partisan commission,” he said. “This is not a bipartisan commission. It is a partisan commission to advance the interests of the Democrats. There is nothing wrong with that, but I would like them to simply call it that.”

Ellenberg said any map produced by the People’s Map Commission should be examined through the same critical lens used on a map created by Republicans in the Legislature. But, he added, how each group went about creating their maps should also be judged.

“Their result, of course, has to be judged by the same standards you would judge any other result,” he said. “But the process is much better. I think it’s quite clear.”


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