MADISON (WKOW) — When the U.S. Supreme Court returned the original redistricting maps selected by the Wisconsin Supreme Court — those submitted by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers — the state’s high court had few options.
This could have further justified the governor’s cards not being a violation of the Voting Rights Act or he could have chosen a different set of cards. The court chose the latter, opting to establish the maps of the GOP-controlled legislature as district boundaries for the Assembly and Senate races for the next decade.
“In practical terms, they didn’t have many alternatives but to adopt the legislative map,” said Joe Handrick, who drew the GOP maps in 1991 and 2001.
Handrick argued that the governor’s cards were a violation of the Voting Rights Act, diluting the black vote by creating a majority-black Seventh District in Milwaukee.
Conservatives, as well as some Democrats in Milwaukee, argue that the violation is that each district with a narrow black majority, between 50 and 52 percent, weakens the black vote compared to the current configuration of six districts with a more distinct African American majority. .
“Because they focused almost exclusively on race dividing the black population almost exactly between these seven districts, it made race the predominant factor in drawing these maps,” Handrick said.
Mel Barnes, attorney at progressive law firm Law Forward. Evers countered never received the change to submit more evidence that the cards complied with federal law — something SCOTUS had said would allow state court to review.
Barnes said that given the increase in the number of black residents in Milwaukee over the past decade compared to a decline in the number of white residents, the addition of a seventh district was necessary to ensure fair representation. She argued that the lawmakers’ card was the real downplay of black voter influence.
“What the legislature chose to do instead of respecting that population growth and recognizing that it required an additional black majority district, they downsized those districts and they drew five districts,” she said. “Still packing black voters into a district where their votes are diluted.”
Barnes and Handrick agreed the court gave itself little leeway when it established early in the process that it would select a map instead of bringing in its own experts to draw its own map or adjust district boundaries – what other courts have done when they’ve had to settle redistricting disputes.
Barnes said it’s possible concerns about having only five black-majority districts could lead to another federal challenge, saying the legislature’s maps violate voting rights law.
The state high court ruled that it would not consider partisan balance when choosing a card, which Barnes said was also a mishandling of the case. A Campaign Legal Center analysis found that the Legislature cards gave the GOP a 12% advantage in the Assembly and nearly 15% in the Senate in cases where the statewide vote was split. at 50-50.
Handrick said the imbalance largely resulted from Liberal voters being increasingly clustered in urban areas.
“Whatever the GOP advantages were at the start of the cycle, they were largely maintained whether you passed the Evers card or the legislative card,” he said.
Barnes countered that external reviews showed that clustering alone did not explain the imbalance.
“While political geography can give a party a slight edge, that’s not what we’ve experienced or experienced here in Wisconsin for the past decade,” she said. “And that’s certainly not what the court-ordered cards on Friday do.”
Changes already being considered for the medical marijuana bill
For the second time in state history, the legislature held a public hearing for a bill that would legalize medical marijuana. Wednesday’s hearing marked the first time such a hearing has been held since Republicans took control of the legislature in 2011.
Co-author Rep. Patrick Snyder (R-Schofield) said he heard a lot of support from his Marathon County constituents and acknowledged his colleagues could have acted sooner on a measure that has become law in 37 other states.
“In the past, we haven’t really looked at it as seriously as maybe we should have,” Snyder said. “But since I’ve been here in the Assembly, it’s become apparent that a lot more people are concerned about this.”
Snyder said Wednesday’s hearing is still relevant because there are resisters in the GOP caucus who oppose any kind of legalization. Democrats and other legalization supporters say the bill is too strict – creating a regulatory commission to decide qualifications to be approved as a patient or to become a licensed vendor.
Sen. Melissa Agard (D-Madison), the legislature’s staunchest supporter of full legalization, including for recreational purposes, said she was also disappointed the hearing took place after the adjournment of the legislature for the year, so there’s no chance it will make it through 2023 at the earliest.
“We had over 15 months to have this conversation in the Capitol building,” Agard said. “And my fellow Republicans, who control this programming, choose to act after we cross the finish line.”
Agard said she thinks the bill should be relaxed, removing a ban that would prevent anyone with a previous drug conviction from becoming a licensed producer or seller. She also believed that patients should be allowed to smoke the plant; in its current form, the bill only allowed edibles and oils.
Snyder said, based on Wednesday’s testimony, that’s a change he’s willing to consider.
“I know there were certain things about being able to smoke marijuana, especially the veterans who talked about it, that they liked it,” Snyder said. “I would be willing to consider that later.”
‘Absurd’ is the word
Another high-profile case still before the Wisconsin Supreme Court will determine how voters can vote by mail later this year. The decision will dictate if and how communities can place drop boxes and when voters can ask someone else to return their absentee ballot.
During oral arguments in court on April 13, the justices asked questions about a host of specific situations, including whether it would be a criminal act for a voter to place their spouse’s ballot in a mailbox or how a Disabled voter is expected to vote if his or her bedridden or physically unable to return their ballot themselves.
UW-Madison constitutional law professor Howard Schweber said the case may well come down to how a hearing from nearly 70 years ago holds up today.
In Sommerfeld vs. St Francis, a candidate challenged the Milwaukee suburb’s decision. 18 absentee ballots did not count because the voters themselves had not delivered the ballots.
In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that it was absurd to read the law so strictly because it “would destroy itself in the case of those who are sick or physically handicapped.”
Schweber said today’s judges must now review a very similar set of considerations.
“The idea that you read a law or a set of laws, in this case, together in such a way as to defeat the whole purpose of the rules system, which is to explain how people can vote, is a bit absurd in a political sense,” Schweber said. “But not necessarily in a linguistic sense.”
Schweber said part of the problem is that lawmakers in the decades following the Sommerfeld case never added language to state law to clarify when it is permit for voters to ask someone else to deliver their ballot.
Although lawmakers did not immediately revise the statutes after the 1955 ruling, Schweber said it was impossible for a court to consider the modern position of lawmakers — much less tie the current legislature to the one that has actually written is in the books.
“Part of the fascinating thing about all of this is that you can’t just go to the legislature and ask them [for clarification] because the legislature we have now is not the same legislature that wrote the law,” Schweber said.