Wisconsin’s Legislative Districts, Resembling Swiss Cheese, Are Targeted in Lawsuit

by Gabriel Martinez
fokus keyword Wisconsin's legislative districts

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State Representative Jimmy Anderson from Wisconsin must leave his own district twice to visit some of the northern neighborhoods he represents. Starting from his home in Fitchburg, a suburb of Madison, Anderson’s journey to reach his constituents takes him through the 47th, 77th, and 48th Assembly Districts, finally leading to a distant part of his district.

Is it unusual? Definitely. Is it inconvenient? Without a doubt. Is it unconstitutional? Possibly.

Though the state constitution mandates legislative districts to be comprised of adjacent areas, many still include disconnected parts. This results in a map resembling Swiss cheese, with certain districts containing small, isolated neighborhood pockets overseen by different representatives.

The bizarre and unique practice of having separated districts in Wisconsin has been named in a recent lawsuit. This suit aims to abolish and replace the existing Assembly and Senate districts before the 2024 election. It argues that the state’s practice, along with partisan gerrymandering, violates equal protection and free speech under the state constitution.

Similar claims have had inconsistent outcomes across the country, but Democrats in Wisconsin hope their Supreme Court’s liberal majority will reject the gerrymandering that has favored Republicans. The noncontiguous districts might offer judges a neutral ground for ruling against the current maps without discussing the legality of partisan gerrymandering.

Professor Kenneth R. Mayer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison remarked that this case might give the courts an impartial basis to decide that the maps are not acceptable.

Wisconsin’s districts are among the nation’s most skewed, favoring Republicans more than proportionately to their average vote share, a Big Big News analysis has shown.

Normally, states follow principles like ensuring that districts are nearly equal in population, compact, contiguous, and follow the boundaries of cities and counties. “Contiguous” is usually taken to mean that all parts of a district are connected, except for some rational exceptions like islands.

Wisconsin’s approach to contiguity, however, has been more lax. Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Marymount University Law School called Wisconsin’s detached districts “profoundly weird.”

The disconnected territories in Anderson’s district create a challenge for him, especially since he uses a wheelchair. Moreover, his constituents in remote areas are often confused about their representation.

One resident, Gabrielle Young, became a plaintiff in the lawsuit after learning about the disconnected districts from the attorneys who filed it. She called the situation “ridiculous.”

The lawsuit refers to an 1892 case, stating that districts “cannot be made up of two or more pieces of detached territory.” However, 55 of the 99 Assembly districts and 21 of the 33 Senate districts now contain separated sections, as noted in the lawsuit.

Mark Gaber from Campaign Legal Center said that the situation has clearly deviated from the norm at some point. He insisted that the written words must be enforced as they are.

Though in 1992 a federal judicial panel endorsed detached legislative districts, the political landscape has changed. The Republicans, currently in control of the Legislature, proposed maps with disconnected districts that the Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted last year.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos defended the districts as constitutional, referring to earlier court decisions.

According to Micah Altman, a research scientist at MIT, contiguous and compact district criteria must be balanced with other principles, like equal population distribution and maintaining the integrity of municipalities and counties.

In Anderson’s district, the disconnection may not have altered the partisan composition, but experts warn that noncontiguous districting could allow manipulation in favor of politicians.

Justin Levitt warns, “When you allow mapmakers to draw districts that are noncontiguous, you give them even more flexibility to perpetrate abuse.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about fokus keyword Wisconsin’s legislative districts

What is the main issue with Wisconsin’s legislative districts?

The main issue with Wisconsin’s legislative districts is that many contain disconnected parts, leading to a map that resembles Swiss cheese. This practice of detached districts and alleged partisan gerrymandering is being challenged in a lawsuit, citing violations of equal protection and free speech under the state constitution.

How does State Rep. Jimmy Anderson’s journey illustrate the problem?

State Rep. Jimmy Anderson’s journey illustrates the problem as he must exit and reenter his own 47th Assembly District multiple times to reach certain northern neighborhoods he represents. The disjointed route highlights the issue of noncontiguous territories within the districting system.

What does the lawsuit aim to achieve?

The lawsuit aims to strike down the current Assembly and Senate districts in Wisconsin and replace them before the 2024 election. It alleges that the practice of noncontiguous districts and partisan gerrymandering is illegal under the state constitution.

Are there any historical precedents related to this issue?

Yes, the lawsuit cites an 1892 case stating that districts “cannot be made up of two or more pieces of detached territory.” In 1992, a federal judicial panel essentially endorsed detached legislative districts, but the political context has changed since then, leading to the current legal challenge.

How might the situation affect residents in these “land islands”?

Residents in these “land islands” or disconnected territories may find the situation confusing and feel improperly represented. The disconnected nature of these districts may also affect politicians’ ability to canvas and interact with constituents, leading to a lack of community cohesion and misalignment of interests.

What are the viewpoints of political parties regarding this issue?

Republicans, who currently control the Wisconsin Legislature, defend the districts as constitutional, alluding to prior court rulings. Democrats, on the other hand, are backing the legal challenge, hoping that the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s liberal majority will reject the gerrymandering practice.

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TimJ89 August 13, 2023 - 2:07 pm

Y don’t they just make the districts normal like other states? seems simple to me.

Mike_Olson August 13, 2023 - 3:26 pm

The politicians are always playing games with the rules. noncontiguous districts, really? It’s ridiculous.

Sara K. August 13, 2023 - 4:00 pm

This really hits home. I live in one of those “land islands” and never realized how weird it was till now. Time for a change!

Hannah A August 14, 2023 - 12:33 am

Agree with the lawsuit, it’s about time someone takes a stand against this. not just in Wisconsin but everywhere!

Bethany L August 14, 2023 - 7:41 am

The people in power always find ways to manipulate things in their favor, i guess… Makes me lose faith in the system.

Gary Mitchell August 14, 2023 - 10:52 am

If the court allows this, then wat else will they let pass? slippery slope if you ask me.

Jenny Smith August 14, 2023 - 1:24 pm

I can’t believe how messed up our districting is in Wisconsin! Makes you wonder what else they get away with…


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