MARY SPICUZZA | Wisconsin State Journal
Thursday, March 22, 2012 11:30 am
Wisconsin lawmakers will have to redraw voting maps for two districts in Milwaukee because their first attempt unfairly weakened Latino voting power, a panel of federal judges ruled Thursday.The maps changed voting boundaries throughout the state, were drawn by the GOP-controlled Legislature last year and signed into law by Gov. Scott Walker in August.
The three-judge panel found that the maps unfairly hurt Latino voters in two south side Milwaukee districts by diluting their voting power.
The panel ruled that because Assembly Districts 8 and 9 in Milwaukee violate the Voting Rights Act, the state Government Accountability Board cannot implement the new maps in their current form.
But the court upheld all of the other legislative and congressional districts that Republicans drew. That means that, unless there is another counter ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, the maps — which favor Republican candidates — will be in place for the next decade. They are set to go into effect in November.
Election boundaries must be redrawn every 10 years to account for population changes tracked by the U.S. Census Bureau in an effort to ensure that political districts throughout the state roughly include the same number of voters.
In recent decades, Republican and Democratic state lawmakers in Wisconsin have not been able to agree on maps, and as a result courts have established the lines. This time around, Republicans had control of the state Senate, Assembly, and governor’s office. After taking control in January 2011, they worked quickly to draw GOP-friendly maps.
But even before Republican lawmakers unveiled their maps last summer, a group of Democratic citizens including former lawmakers sued over them in federal court in Milwaukee. Then immigrant rights advocacy group named Voces de la Frontera filed another suit. The two cases were consolidated.
Opponents of the Republicans’ maps argued the new district lines weakened Latinos’ voting power by dividing one Hispanic bloc in Milwaukee into two separate Assembly districts.
And they said the maps needlessly moved as many as 300,000 voters into new districts, forcing many voters to wait six years, instead of the usual four, before casting ballots in their next state Senate elections. The plaintiffs argued that change violated those voters’ rights, but the court did not agree on that charge.
The maps’ backers insisted it’s impossible to draw maps that please everyone in redistricting, which is a notoriously controversial process. And they said creating two Milwaukee districts with heavy Latino populations would increase their ability to elect two Latinos to the state Assembly rather than just one.
In the memo accompanying its judgment, the panel repeated that lawmakers rather than courts should be the ones to draw the lines. The court battle over the maps had been delayed this spring after the judges urged GOP leaders to revisit the maps, but they refused. The trial took place in late February.
Thursday’s judgment was signed by J.P. Stadtmueller, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, in the U.S. District Court Eastern District of Wisconsin. It was written by Stadtmueller, Diane P. Wood of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and Robert M. Dow Jr. of the Northern District of Illinois. Wood was appointed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, and Dow was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush.
The panel’s memo accompanying its judgment served up some harsh words for Republicans. The judges slammed GOP lawmakers over the secrecy surrounding the redistricting process, noting the maps were largely drawn at the offices of Michael Best & Friedrich. The judges had already been critical of the process — and that most GOP lawmakers were required to sign agreements pledging not to publicly discuss the maps.
“Every effort was made to keep this work out of the public eye and, most particularly, out of the eye of the Democrats,” they wrote.
The judges also noted that while the GOP shut Democrats and most of the public out of the process, “they also held meetings behind closed doors with selected outsiders” like lobbying group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, D-Kenosha, quickly applauded the judges’ order.
“They have given the Legislature another chance — and we stand ready to work with the Republicans to draw maps in a transparent, open fashion that respects the citizens of Wisconsin and our communities.”
Walker’s office declined to comment late Thursday morning.