‘The people actually get to decide’: Wisconsin voters celebrate new legislative maps - TAI News
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Voters in Vernon County, Wisconsin, know they live in a politically unique part of the state.

“I always like to say that this is a swing region in a swing state,” said Wayde Lawler, chair of the Vernon County Democratic Party.

With its rolling hills of farmland, Vernon County is known for being a unique purple region of the state. It is what’s known as a pivot county, having voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, and then for former President Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. The county has also voted in support of abortion rights.

“People are strongly Democrat and strongly Republican, and there’s very few people who are not very involved,” said 78-year-old voter Jan Feeler of Viroqua.

Residents often vote for candidates not because of their politics, but because they’re their neighbor or because they once helped them when their car was stuck, said 19-year-old voter Zirelia Leinberger of Viroqua.

“I think that people around here vote not just based on the politics, on the views of the people running for office, but also on the life that they’ve shared,” she said.

Despite its reputation as a melting pot of political views, the county has been represented by a Republican in the 96th State Assembly District since at least 1973. Lawler said the district was designed that way by Republican gerrymandering.

Wisconsin has long been considered one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, and a battle for fair legislative district boundaries has been ongoing for more than a decade. Come November, though, Vernon County and the rest of Wisconsin will have new legislative maps.

After a lawsuit challenged the most recent GOP-drawn maps before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers agreed on a new set of maps drawn by Evers.

The new maps have reconfigured the boundaries of the Assembly and Senate districts, and while they still favor Republicans, they create more fair competition between the parties.

The new maps also eliminate districts that had islands of disconnected land, and the new boundaries better align with existing municipal and county lines. The infamously gerrymandered city of Sheboygan, which was previously split in half between two Assembly districts, will now be wholly in one competitive district.

The 96th Assembly District currently encompasses nearly all of Vernon County, but also stretches north and south into more conservative Crawford and Monroe counties. Feeler said it “looked like a chimney, reaching out to try to get as many Republican voters as they could.”

The new maps will confine the district to just Vernon County and some of the southern part of La Crosse County.

The changes overwhelmingly swing the district from right to left. According to an analysis by Marquette Law School researcher John Johnson based on results of the 2022 election, the new district will favor Democrats with about 57% of the vote share, compared to the 58% of the vote that Republicans currently hold in the district.

Residents think the new maps better represent the politics of Vernon County.

“I think it gives everyone more of a fair chance to elect an official. I think that the way they were set up shooed in the Republicans and gave the Democrats a very slim chance, and so it makes me excited to know that the people that are in office aren’t deciding who gets to go in office. But with fair maps, the people actually get to decide,” Leinberger said.

Lawler said that early on, the fight for fair maps was really only discussed amongst politically active residents and organizers. But it has grown in recent years into an issue that more and more citizens in Vernon County care about; voters have come to recognize that the maps were unfair. In 2019, 71% of voters in Vernon County passed a referendum question in support of a redistricting process to create fair maps.

Former teacher April Olkiewicz of Westby said the new maps make her more confident heading to the polls in November: “I will feel better about getting a fair shake, and if what I vote for doesn’t win, I will feel better about losing.”

While the new maps feel like a win to voters in Vernon County, they say the work doesn’t end there.

“When we were fighting for fair maps I always said, ‘The maps aren’t going to save us.’ We still have to organize, we still have to run quality candidates, we still have to do the work. But all anybody was ever asking for was a fair shot,” Lawler said. “And I think that the governor’s maps provide that.”

Lawler said the new maps will require candidates from all parties to listen to voters more, and he hopes they will keep extremists at bay. He said he’s heard from more people who have been interested in running for office in the past but have felt defeated because of the gerrymandered maps.

It will be up to voters to make the new maps mean something, Leinberger said: “It’s even more important, too, that everyone gets out to vote, just to make sure that we utilize the maps that we’ve been given now.”

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