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Local elections new front in Wisconsin redistricting battle

By SCOTT BAUER
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — County board and local aldermanic districts in Wisconsin would remain the same next year under a bill moving quickly through the Republican-controlled Legislature that would delay redistricting and implementation of new political boundaries for local races until at least 2023.

The bill, supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, would not affect the timing of redistricting for congressional or legislative districts, which must be redrawn before the 2022 election. It was introduced on Tuesday and was the subject of a public hearing Wednesday.

It’s the latest front in the battle over redistricting, the once-a-decade task of drawing new political boundary lines.

Republican lawmakers and other backers of the new bill say it’s innocuous and not designed to give anyone a partisan advantage. But Democrats and other critics say it would be unconstitutional and disenfranchise voters in growing parts of the state that would be forced to hold local elections based on current, rather than updated, maps in 2022.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal at all,” Rep. Rob Swearingen, a Republican and chairman of the Committee on State Affairs, said during Wednesday’s hearing.

But Democrats and other opponents said keeping the current maps in place for local elections runs the risk of being unconstitutional and violate the “one person, one vote” doctrine.

“I don’t view this bill as innocuous,” said state Rep. Tip McGuire, a Democrat. “I think this bill is going to be openly a violation of the 14th amendment.”

Andy Phillips, attorney for the Wisconsin Counties Association, said simply delaying redistricting would not violate anyone’s Constitutional rights. And he said other solutions, such as postponing the spring election, were more problematic and more likely to result in lawsuits.

The proposal would push back the current deadlines for counties and cities to draw their new district boundary lines. The result would be to keep the current maps in place until the spring 2023 election for city council and other aldermanic races and 2024 for county board races, except those that have staggered terms and elections in 2023.

Local government officials and other supporters testified that they had been discussing the proposal for months, even since the U.S. Census Bureau said the population data would come in mid-August or later, rather than by April.

“We think it makes the most sense given the uncertainty of when we’ll receive the census data,” said Curt Witynski, deputy executive director of the League of Wisconsin Municipalities.

Supporters testified that there won’t be time to enact new local district boundary lines before candidate filing deadlines in December and January for the spring 2022 election.

But opponents, including those who want an independent group to be in charge of redistricting at the state level, said they don’t want the current maps drawn by Republicans in 2011 to remain in effect any longer than they have to.

Matt Rothschild, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, said the bill would force local governments to accept “gerrymandering that comes from on high” because local boundaries would have to conform with how legislative districts are drawn, rather than the other way around.

That creates a real problem for local election officials who may be forced by the Legislature to divide up small local wards into different legislative districts in confusing ways that increase the chances of voters being given the wrong ballot, said Scott McDonell, Dane County clerk and lobbyist for the Wisconsin County Clerks Association.

The Wisconsin Municipal Clerks Association opposes the bill because of the different timelines for when new maps would take effect for county and aldermanic districts.

Groups representing towns, villages, municipalities and counties all support the bill.

Republicans control the state Legislature but whatever statewide maps they create for new legislative and congressional districts must be signed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. If Evers vetoes the maps, as expected, the fight is expected to move to the courts which would ultimately approve new maps.

Evers did not respond for a request for comment on the bill affecting local political boundaries.

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