Redistricting: an ‘inside baseball’ game


(Above: An image from 1812, drawn by Elkanah Tisdale, of a Massachusetts legislative map that looked like a giant salamander. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Steve Freese
President and CEO

Even though a good portion of the population likely has an opinion on legislative redistricting, very few understand the process and the politics that govern it. Redistricting is one of the most partisan issues that legislators are constitutionally required to deal with every 10 years after the U.S. Census is complete. It truly is the ultimate “inside baseball” game when it comes to partisan politics, and it is playing out right now at the Wisconsin Capitol.

Redistricting is the process by which states adjust the boundaries of congressional, state legislative, and local electoral districts to account for shifts in population. As mentioned earlier, this occurs every 10 years. Not only is it partisan, it is also very complicated. For example, due to significant advancements in data and demographic analysis, the drawing of maps from the early 1970s or ‘80s is technologically different than it is now. The litigious nature of partisan redistricting also often leads to a tremendous amount of judicial involvement from the federal and state courts.

Redistricting battles often occur because one party will accuse the other of drawing unfair, or “gerrymandered,” maps. Anyone who has studied U.S. political history has likely heard this term. Its origins date back to 1812 when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill that created a senate legislative map so disjointed that a Boston Globe illustrator named Elkanah Tisdale drew a now very famous picture map that looked like a monster, almost like a giant salamander. The poet Richard Alsop is credited with arguing that it looked like a “gerry mander” and to this day the term is still used when describing political maps that seem to make little sense other than for partisan gain.

With Republicans controlling both legislative houses and Governor Evers holding the veto pen, the odds that maps could be drawn by Republicans and signed into law by a Democratic governor were dismal at best. In January of 2020, the governor issued an executive order creating the People’s Map Commission charged with, among other things, drawing maps “free from partisan bias and partisan advantage.” At the same time, the legislature pushed forward with drafting and introducing their own maps. Charging that the Commission’s maps were fatally flawed, Republicans put them up for a vote anyway. They were soundly rejected, with many Democrats joining Republicans in opposition. Ultimately, GOP-drawn maps were passed last November, with Evers quickly vetoing them.

Enter the courts. Without getting too far into the weeds on explaining state and federal judicial review of the redistricting saga in Wisconsin, it appears that the Wisconsin Supreme Court is poised to ultimately decide how this gets resolved. The court has informed interested parties that it will take a “least change” approach to redrawing political district lines. This means that they are ordering parties to submit maps that make the least amount of changes to the existing maps drawn in 2011, while still making adjustments to account for population shifts, and adherence to other legal principles like the Voting Rights Act, compact and contiguous districts, minimizing municipal splits, etc. It is expected that the court will make a decision soon so lines are in place with sufficient time for candidates and municipal election officials to prepare for the 2022 general election.

Do you care? You’re probably asking yourself why you should. If I’m making the argument that this is all inside baseball with a fierce partisan bent and ultimately the courts will decide it anyway, it seems like a logical question to ask. What all this demonstrates is that elections matter and they have consequences. Legislative elections matter. Supreme Court elections matter.

No matter your position on whether you approve or disapprove of the current redistricting process, these maps will be in place for 10 years. The maps for the next decade will produce elected officials who will vote on state budgets and other legislation that will impact your daily lives. So yes, I think you should care. You may not like how it’s done, but I think it’s important that you at least have a better understanding behind the process and politics of this critically important decennial event.