Behind the locked doors of a “map room,” in a politically connected law firm’s offices across from the historic Capitol, three men worked in secret to ensure the future of the state’s newly triumphant Republican Party. They were drawing the legislative districts in which members of the Wisconsin Senate and State Assembly would be elected. When the men — two aides to legislative leaders and a lobbyist brought in to help — finished in the early summer of 2011, they headed across the street to present their work. “The maps we pass will determine who’s here 10 years from now,” read the notes for the meeting, which were made public as part of a lawsuit. “We have an opportunity and an obligation to draw these maps that Republicans haven’t had in decades.” The maps are now at the center of a Supreme Court case to be argued next month that could change the dynamics of American politics — if the justices decide for the first time that a legislative map is so infected with political favoritism that it violates the Constitution.
“The evidence of extreme partisan gerrymandering cannot be clearer than it is here in Wisconsin,” said state Sen. Mark Miller (D), who opposed the redistricting plan and later played a key role in revealing the process that produced it.
Of course, that’s not the same thing as saying that extreme partisan gerrymandering is unique to Wisconsin. There are lawsuits nationwide that make that charge — Maryland’s congressional districts, drawn by Democrats, are being challenged by the state’s minority Republicans, for instance — and fed-up voters in other states have taken the redistricting process away from politicians.
But extraordinary developments in Wisconsin have given the public an inside look at what usually is a top-secret process — and confirmation of the adage that in redistricting, legislators choose their constituents, not the other way around.