Wisconsin’s legislative maps are bizarre, but are they illegal?

by Megan O’Matz, graphics by Lucas Waldron


ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Any number of odd, zigzag examples can be used to make the case that legislative districts in Wisconsin are excessively gerrymandered.

There’s the pistol-shaped 31st Assembly District, held by a Republican, that was drawn with a western border that splits the Democratic city of Beloit in two.

There’s suburban Milwaukee’s 14th Assembly District, which stretches south, then east, then southwest, then east and again south, isolating Democrats and thereby limiting the Democratic vote in neighboring districts held by Republicans.

And in the northwest corner of the state, there’s the 73rd Assembly District, which resembles a Tyrannosaurus rex after a remap wiped out a reliable bloc of Democrats and added more rural conservative areas. The result: After 50 years of Democratic control, a Republican won in 2022.

Yet when the Wisconsin Supreme Court hears arguments next week in a widely watched lawsuit arguing that the existing maps fail to meet standards set out in the state constitution, that kind of political engineering will not be the focus.

Instead, much of the debate will center on exactly how to interpret the word “contiguous.” And the map shapes that are likely to get attention have elicited comparisons to Swiss cheese.

Fifty-five of the state’s 99 Assembly districts and 21 of 33 in the Senate contain “disconnected pieces of territory,” according to the most recent petition filed with the state Supreme Court by 19 Wisconsin voters. The suit seeks to have the state’s maps declared unfair and redrawn.

Some sections of the state’s maps “look like a 2-year-old drew them,” said Democratic Rep. Jodi Emerson, who represents the city of Eau Claire in northwestern Wisconsin.

In the interior of her district, the 91st, sits a free-floating chunk that actually belongs to the turf of the adjacent lawmaker, Republican Karen Hurd.

That may seem odd, but what is often left unsaid in discussions of Wisconsin maps is that the islands are not random parcels created by mapmakers to advantage Republicans at the behest of a Republican legislature. Rather, the irregular blobs largely follow municipal maps that reflect the history of Wisconsin cities and villages adding to their tax base by annexing bits of land in nearby areas. The practice often leaves towns with irregular maps and legislative districts with holes and satellites.

The plaintiffs, who are Democratic voters, claim that the legislative district boundaries violate Article IV, Section 4 of the state constitution, which says Assembly members must be elected from districts consisting of “contiguous territory.”

But the same section of Article IV also requires that Assembly districts “be bounded by county, precinct, town or ward lines.”

Senate districts, which are each made up of three Assembly districts, are governed by Section 5. It says they must consist of “convenient contiguous territory.”

So, which trumps which? Contiguity or municipal lines?

"This is the only case I’m aware of where contiguity has been the focus of a challenge,” said University of Colorado Law Professor Doug Spencer, an expert in redistricting. “This could give the new Supreme Court in Wisconsin a way to overturn the maps on neutral grounds."

Much is at stake. The case could decide the future of Wisconsin state politics, with possible ramifications for such hot-button issues as abortion and voting rights.

One election law expert, after reviewing the constitution, saw the Senate language as more straightforward to challenge. Section 5 does not mention a need for Senate maps to be bounded by any kind of government or municipal lines. It only mentions contiguity.

That language is “more of a slam dunk” for the plaintiffs, said Michael McDonald of the University of Florida’s political science department, where he studies mapping issues.

GOP legislators who oppose the suit argue in one legal brief that insisting all parts of a district must physically touch flouts prior court rulings and “is absurd and unworkable.”

Marooned on a Voting Island

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that state legislative districts should have roughly equal populations, while federal law prohibits drawing lines that dilute the voting power of minorities. In addition to those parameters, states have adopted their own principles, which frequently include keeping districts contiguous.

The rationale behind contiguity is to create local districts where lawmakers live near and share common concerns with their constituents.

Contiguous means “you can draw a district without ever having to lift up your pencil,” Spencer explained.

But that’s not Wisconsin’s method.

According to the legal complaint, the majority of Wisconsin’s Assembly districts are noncontiguous — each consisting of between two and 40 disconnected pieces of territory. Two-thirds of the state’s Senate districts are noncontiguous — each with between two and 34 disconnected pieces.

Consider just a few of the Assembly districts referenced in the case.

High Stakes on the Highest Court

Wisconsin’s maps have long been a contentious political topic, even becoming an issue earlier this year in a fiercely competitive race for a seat on the state Supreme Court, a contest that attracted tens of millions of dollars in campaign donations and outside spending.

The liberal-leaning candidate, Janet Protasiewicz, won, tipping the balance of the court to the left for the first time in 15 years. During the race, she expressed her support for legal abortion and her concern that the legislative maps were “rigged.”

One day after Protasiewicz’s Aug. 1 swearing-in ceremony, the group of Democratic voters filed suit, challenging the maps as “extreme partisan gerrymanders.” The high court declined to hear arguments about how the maps created a political advantage and, instead, narrowed the case to two arcane issues. One was “contiguity.” The other was “separation of powers,” centering on whether the prior Supreme Court overstepped its authority last year when it adopted the Legislature's maps despite a veto by the state’s Democratic governor, Tony Evers.

When Protasiewicz and the liberal majority decided in favor of hearing the case, conservatives on the court didn’t hide their displeasure.

“Redistricting should not be an annual event,” griped Chief Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler in a written dissent. She added that the decision to focus solely on contiguity and separation of powers, which are state Constitutional issues, was “an attempt to dodge appellate review.”

Another justice, Rebecca Grassl Bradley, expressed her dismay with the case by liberally citing Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its sequel.

“Through the Looking Glass we go,” she wrote of what she considered to be a purely political, madcap exercise.

As the court date approaches, Republican legislators have been calling for Protasiewicz’s impeachment, claiming she’s biased. But she has said she won’t prejudge the issue and won’t recuse herself.

So far, Republicans haven’t acted on the impeachment threat. But even talk of such an extreme measure shows how significant the maps’ case is.

If redrawn, districts could become more competitive and less safe for incumbents — perhaps changing the power balance in the state capital. Republicans could lose complete control of the Legislature or, even if they retain power, lose their opportunity to gain a supermajority that would allow them to override Evers’ vetoes. A weakened state GOP could also be less helpful in 2024 to any Republicans who seek to again dispute presidential election results in Wisconsin, a swing state.

John Johnson, a Marquette University researcher who studies redistricting, noted that, ironically, it was Democrats who favored noncontiguous districts three decades ago.

Back then, maps drawn under the oversight of a Democratic legislature had created islands. Wisconsin Republicans at the time favored the dictionary definition, embracing “literal contiguity,” according to a key 1992 federal redistricting case that has been cited in the current controversy.

A federal three-judge panel, considering broader issues, didn’t endorse the islands but tolerated them, noting that the distance in the Democratic plan between the towns and the islands was slight.

The court held that “compactness and contiguity are desirable features in a redistricting plan,” but “only up to a point.”

Reaching “perfect contiguity and compactness,” the judges feared, would require “breaking up counties, towns, villages, wards and even neighborhoods.”

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The Biden interview: Supreme Court, threats to democracy and Trump’s vow to exact retribution

by John Harwood


ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

President Joe Biden said Friday that he was not fully confident that the current U.S. Supreme Court, which he described as extreme, could be relied on to uphold the rule of law.

When asked the question directly, Biden paused for a few seconds. Then he sighed and said, “I worry.”

“Because,” he said, “I know that if the other team, the MAGA Republicans, win, they don’t want to uphold the rule of law.”

But he said, “I do think at the end of the day, this court, which has been one of the most extreme courts, I still think in the basic fundamentals of rule of law, that they would sustain the rule of law.”

Still, Biden said the court itself should recognize it needs ethics rules after stories by ProPublica revealed that billionaires had given undisclosed gifts to Supreme Court justices and that Justice Clarence Thomas has made appearances at events for donors to the Koch political network. The code of conduct that applies to other federal judges doesn’t apply to the Supreme Court. “The idea that the Constitution would in any way prohibit or not encourage the court to have basic rules of ethics that are just on their face reasonable,” Biden said, “is just not the case.”

The discussion was part of a rare formal interview on a topic the president has laid out as a priority: How America’s democracy is under siege. Seated in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Friday afternoon, Biden seemed relaxed and confident, batting back a question about why he thinks he’s the only Democrat who can protect democracy next year, especially given voter concerns with his age: “I’m not the only Democrat that can protect it. I just happen to be the Democrat who I think is best positioned to see to it that the guy I was worried about taking on democracy is not president.”

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Biden cast the threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump’s 2024 candidacy as a resistance movement animated by fear of change. “I think Trump has concluded that he has to win,” Biden said, noting the rising vitriol in the embattled former president’s rhetoric. “And they’ll pull out all the stops.”

Biden linked the attempt by House Republicans to bring Washington to “a screeching halt” through a government shutdown to Trump’s effort to regain the presidency. He warned against the desire of “MAGA Republicans” — which he called a minority of the GOP, much less the nation as a whole — to weaken institutions such as the federal civil service to shift power over the U.S. government toward the president alone. Trump has promised his supporters to “be your retribution” in a second term.

The drama over a government shutdown resulted from the “terrible bargain” Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy made with extremist colleagues to secure his job, Biden said. “He’s willing to do things that he, I think, he knows are inconsistent with constitutional processes.” He added: “There is a group of MAGA Republicans who genuinely want to have a fundamental change in the way that the system works. And that’s what worries me the most.”

Biden faulted his Democratic Party for failing at some points to respond effectively to one of the wellsprings of the anti-democratic threat: the anxieties of Americans, most conspicuously blue-collar white men, unsettled by economic, cultural and demographic change.

What’s needed isn’t so much economic benefits as “treating them with respect,” said Biden, who has emphasized his middle-class Scranton, Pennsylvania, upbringing throughout his political career. “The fact is, we’re going to be very shortly a minority-white-European country. Sometimes my colleagues don’t speak enough to make it clear that that is not going to change how we operate.”

Biden expressed confidence that the majority of the Republican Party and the nation itself would ultimately safeguard the American experiment. But he exhorted them to “speak up” in opposition to the increasingly menacing rhetoric Trump has deployed in response to his legal peril.

“[Do] not legitimize it,” he said. He added, in what seemed a reference to the vitriol aimed at jurors and potential jurors in trials for the Jan. 6 insurrection and Trump-related cases, “I never thought I’d see a time when someone was worried about being on a jury because there may be physical violence against them if they voted the wrong way.”

He encouraged Americans concerned about democracy to be “engaging” more with family, friends and acquaintances who have embraced extremism. Even more urgent, he added, is voting in next year’s presidential election. “Get in a two-way conversation,” he said. “I really do believe that the vast majority of the American people are decent, honorable, straightforward. … We have to, though, understand what the danger is if they don’t participate.”

ProPublica also asked Biden whether his former Senate colleague Joe Lieberman is upholding democracy by working with an organization called No Labels to pursue a potential third-party candidacy. “Well, he has a democratic right to do it. There’s no reason not to do that. Now, it’s going to help the other guy. And he knows [that]. … That’s a political decision he’s making that I obviously think is a mistake. But he has a right to do that.”

Biden was asked whether Fox News and other outlets that spread falsehoods about the 2020 election drive the threat that he’s concerned about or simply reflect sentiment that already exists. Both, Biden said: “Look, there are no editors any more. That’s one of the big problems.” Without providing detail, he suggested that reporters on outlets such as Fox are just doing what they’re told.

In response to a question about whether the decision by Elon Musk, the billionaire owner of X (formerly Twitter), to lower guardrails against misinformation contributes to the problem, Biden said, “Yeah, it does.” Biden noted that the invention of the printing press had effects that are still felt today. He suggested something similar was happening with the internet. “Where do people get their news?” he continued. “They go on the internet. They go online … and you have no notion whether it’s true or not.”

Wisconsin’s Republicans scrambling to protect their extreme and ridiculous gerrymander

by Megan O’Matz ProPublica

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

In the northwest corner of Wisconsin, the 73rd Assembly District used to be shaped like a mostly rectangular blob. Then, last year, a new map drawn by Republican lawmakers took effect, and some locals joked that it looked a lot like a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The advent of the “T. rex” precipitated dark times and perhaps extinction for local Democrats.

The new map bit off and spit out a large chunk of Douglas County, which tended to vote Democratic, and added rural swaths of Burnett County, which leans conservative.

The Assembly seat had been held by Democrats for 50 years. But after the district lines were moved, Republican Angie Sapik, who had posted comments disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement and cheered on the Jan. 6 rioters on social media, won the seat in November 2022.

The redrawing of the 73rd District and its implications are emblematic of the extreme gerrymandering that defines Wisconsin — where maps have been drawn in irregular and disconnected shapes over the last two decades, helping Republicans seize and keep sweeping power.

That gerrymandering, which stands out even in a country where the practice is regularly employed by both major parties, fuels Wisconsin power dynamics. And that has drawn national attention because of the potential impact on abortion rights for people across the state and voting policies that could affect the outcome of the next presidential election.

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The new maps have given Wisconsin Republicans the leeway to move aggressively on perceived threats to their power. The GOP-controlled Senate recently voted to fire the state’s nonpartisan elections chief, Meagan Wolfe, blaming her for pandemic-era voting rules that they claim helped Joe Biden win the state in 2020. A legal battle over Wolfe’s firing now looms.

The future of a newly elected state supreme court justice, Janet Protasiewicz, also is in doubt. Her election in April shifted the balance of the court to the left and put the Wisconsin maps in peril. Republican leaders have threatened to impeach her if she does not recuse herself from a case that seeks to invalidate the maps drawn by the GOP. They argue that she’s biased because during her campaign she told voters the maps are “rigged.”

“They are rigged, period. Coming right out and saying that. I don’t think you could sell to any reasonable person that the maps are fair,” she said at a January candidates forum.

She added: “I can't ever tell you what I’m going to do on a particular case, but I can tell you my values, and common sense tells you that it’s wrong.”

Given the usually staid campaign statements associated with state-level judicial races, her comments stood out.

But, by any number of measurements made by dispassionate researchers, the maps have, in fact, proven to be extreme.

The Gerrymandering Project at Princeton gives the Wisconsin redistricting an F grade for partisan fairness, finding Republicans have a significant advantage, as do incumbents. “Wisconsin’s legislative maps are among the most extreme partisan ones in the country,” the project’s director, Sam Wang, said in an email to ProPublica.

Wang argues that Wisconsin’s GOP has gone further than most states and engineered “a supermajority gerrymander” in the Senate. Republicans control 22 of 33 Senate seats, giving them the two-thirds required to override a gubernatorial veto. (In the Assembly, the GOP is still two seats short of a supermajority.)

“The resulting supermajority, immune from public opinion, can engage in extreme behavior without paying a price in terms of political power,” Wang warned in a Substack article.

In the two decades before the Republicans configured the maps to their advantage, the state Senate, in particular, was more competitive, and Democrats at times controlled it.

The state’s maps changed dramatically beginning in 2011 when the GOP gained control of the Legislature and Republican Scott Walker became governor. The party redesigned the maps again in 2021, further tweaking the successful 2011 template.

“The current maps, as currently constituted, make it virtually impossible for Democrats to ever achieve majority party status in the legislature,” said Democratic strategist Joe Zepecki of Milwaukee. “Even if they win statewide by like 10 points.”

State politics is now dominated by confrontation and stalemates, with the GOP pushing its agenda and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers regularly wielding his veto power to block Republican initiatives. Unless the maps change or Republicans win the governor’s office, there seems to be no end to this dynamic.

Republicans have argued that it is their right, politically, as the victorious party to craft the maps, and so far the maps have survived legal challenges.

“Our maps were adopted by the Wisconsin Supreme Court because they were legal,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a statement to ProPublica.

He added: “Republican legislative candidates do well in elections because we have good candidates who listen to their constituencies and earn the votes of Republicans and independents alike.”

Asked at a 2021 Senate hearing whether partisan advantage was the intent of the maps, Vos said: “There is no constitutional prohibition on that criteria, so yes, was partisanship considered as a consideration in the map? Yes, there were certain times that partisanship was.”

Basic goals set by state and federal law govern the drawing of districts. Among them: District lines should be contiguous and compact with equal numbers of people. The boundaries should not, where possible, split counties or municipalities.

But 55 of the 99 districts in the Assembly and 21 of the 33 in the Senate contain “disconnected pieces of territory,” according to the most recent complaint filed with the state Supreme Court by 19 Wisconsin voters. The suit argues that this should not be allowed, even when towns annex noncontiguous areas, creating islands or enclaves in districts.

“Despite the fact that our Assembly and Senate are meant to be the most direct representatives of the people, the gerrymandered maps have divided our communities, preventing fair representation,” said Dan Lenz, staff counsel for Law Forward, which brought the maps suit, in a statement to ProPublica. “This has eroded confidence in our electoral systems, suppressed competitive elections, skewed policy outcomes, and undermined democratic representation."

The Impeachment Question

Protasiewicz’s election came after a hard-fought campaign, with both parties pouring in millions of dollars. Protasiewicz promised to recuse herself from any case brought by the Democratic state party, but not from all cases that might benefit Democrats.

Her victory meant conservatives lost control of the state’s highest court. It gave liberals hope that GOP initiatives, including some dating back to the Walker administration, could be reconsidered.

The court may be called upon to review key voting rules heading into the 2024 presidential election and to decide whether Wolfe keeps her role as administrator of the state elections commission. Also likely to come before the court is whether an 1849 abortion ban, reimposed by the overturning of Roe v. Wade, will stand. This week, after a favorable lower court ruling,Planned Parenthood resumed providing abortion services in the state.

Meanwhile, the possibility of the court striking down the maps, potentially loosening the Republicans’ grip on the legislature, sent the GOP looking for alternate ways to hold on to power.

Republican Sen. Dan Knodl first floated the idea in March of impeaching Protasiewicz — before she had even won.

Months later, after Protasiewicz was sworn in Aug. 1, Vos warned that she risked impeachment if she did not step away from the maps case.

Impeaching a justice who won by more than 200,000 votes, with over 1 million total cast for her, struck many as wildly inappropriate and undemocratic.

The reaction from some Wisconsinites was intense, with Democrats leading the outcry. “To threaten the ability of a duly elected justice who was overwhelmingly elected, functioning in her role, is nothing short of a denial of democracy,” said former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Democrat from the Madison area who now leads the American Constitution Society, a legal advocacy group.

The state Democratic Party mobilized, launching a $4 million campaign to challenge the prospect of impeachment.

In the face of the backlash, Vos appeared to shift course, briefly. He proposed, in a Sept. 12 press conference, that Wisconsin adopt a system to configure maps based on an “Iowa model,” in which an advisory committee would help the state Legislative Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan government agency, set the boundaries, subject to legislative approval. Without public hearing or Democratic input, the GOP put forth a bill, which passed the Assembly last week, with only one Democrat in favor.

Evers opposed the plan, saying: “A Legislature that has now repeatedly demonstrated that they will not uphold basic tenets of our democracy — and will bully, threaten, or fire on a whim anyone who happens to disagree with them — cannot be trusted to appoint or oversee someone charged with drawing fair maps.”

Vos has made it clear that he is not abandoning impeachment. He announced last week he had assembled a panel of former justices to advise him on criteria for removing Protasiewicz.

Two Protasiewicz voters filed an emergency petition with the Supreme Court last week asking the court to issue an injunction prohibiting the Assembly from impeaching Protasiewicz, or any other justice, without grounds. Protasiewicz recused herself. She told ProPublica she did not wish to comment for this story.

Wisconsin’s constitution allows for impeachment “for corrupt conduct in office, or for crimes and misdemeanors.” Protasiewicz has not been charged with any crime.

If the Assembly impeaches, it would then fall to the Senate to hold a trial and convict, forcing her from office.

If there is a vacancy on the court on or before Dec. 1, Evers would then choose a replacement to serve until the next election in April 2024, coinciding with the GOP primary for president. Evers likely would appoint another liberal-leaning judge.

But there is another scenario posited by political observers. The Senate could simply not take up a vote, leaving Protasiewicz impeached and in limbo. Under the state constitution, she’d be sidelined, unable to carry out her duties until acquitted.

That would leave the court with a 3-3 ideological divide, though conservative Justice Brian Hagedorn at times sides with the liberals.

Timing matters: Under state law, if Protasiewicz is removed or resigns after Dec. 1, Evers could appoint a replacement who would serve until 2031.

The only thing certain about the situation, it seems, is that those state statutes are being studied closely and that compromise on issues such as the district maps, abortion and voting are off the table.

Onions, Memes and Freedom

The dinosaur-shaped 73rd Assembly District was one of three in northwest Wisconsin that the Republicans flipped last year.

Besides Sapik, voters chose Republicans for the neighboring 74th Assembly District and the horseshoe-shaped Senate District 25. In each case, the Democratic incumbents bowed out.

Democrat Janet Bewley, a former state senator who declined to run again in 2022, watched the GOP mapmaking in that corner of the state up close. She said the changes led to small incremental gains for Republicans in various corners of the new maps — a couple dozen votes here and a couple dozen there. But they added up to defeat.

“They went down to the town level, to see how the towns voted,” she said, making it harder for Democrats.

Sapik, who makes a living shipping onions, had never run for public office before. She loved the new maps.

“I’ve said it before, but we really are in the Dinosaur District! I love the way the lines changed and I welcome everyone new into District 73!” Sapik wrote in a Facebook post during her campaign. “Burnett and Washburn counties, you are going to help turn this District red for the first time!”

In a podcast during her primary race in August 2022, Sapik said she decided to run because she opposed business shutdowns during the pandemic and mask mandates.

About the time she submitted her nomination papers, she said, she was interviewed by the state director of Americans for Prosperity, a political nonprofit established by right-wing billionaires Charles and David Koch. Sapik won the group’s endorsement, and it spent about $40,000 advocating for her election, according to FollowTheMoney.org, a nonpartisan initiative that tracks special interest money in politics.

“I’m on that Freedom Train. I want less. I want less laws. And that was the number one reason that AFP likes me so much,” she said on the podcast.

She has vowed to be “a strong, positive voice for my community,” a diverse district that includes farmers, longtime manufacturers and shipbuilders, union members, and outdoors enthusiasts who prize strong environmental protections for Lake Superior. And she has promised to vote against “infringements against personal freedoms,” to promote tourism, and “bring back true American values.”

Sapik declined to speak with ProPublica for this story. In an emailed response to written questions, she sent a so-called “distracted boyfriend” meme and included a label claiming a ProPublica reporter was “writing lies about Wisconsin Republicans.”

The questions included requests for explanations of what’s behind some of her online comments.

Last summer, for instance, Sapik posted a video on Facebook for a campaign fundraising golf event that said: “Let’s get rid of Democracy; everyone in favor raise your hand!”

It elicited confusion among some followers.

“It’s a joke,” Sapik responded at the time.