End of Wisconsin Gerrymander Offers Hope for Drug Policy Reform

    Wisconsin politics could be transformed after Governor Tony Evers (D) signed new legislative maps into law on February 19. The Wisconsin Supreme Court had ruled against existing maps that practically guaranteed Republican dominance of the state legislature and were considered one of the worst gerrymanders in the country.

    With state elections in November, Democrats will now have a chance to win control—which could usher in policies like Medicaid expansion, gun control, cannabis legalization and other drug policy reforms.

    Back in 2011, Republicans held a trifecta in Wisconsin, controlling the State Assembly, Senate and governor’s office. They took the opportunity to redraw state legislative maps after the 2010 national census, to give themselves a huge advantage in future elections. Gerrymandering is common in United States politics, but Wisconsin’s example still stood out.


    The Gerrymander Battle

    Battles over the gerrymander date back several years. The Wisconsin Supreme Court heard a challenge, and in 2022 voted to accept new maps submitted by Gov. Evers. But the United States Supreme Court overruled this decision, sending the case back to Wisconsin—where this time, the state court voted 4-3 to accept new maps drawn by the Republican-controlled legislature.

    The stakes intensified in 2023, with the pending retirement of a conservative justice from the Wisconsin Supreme Court. The election that followed garnered national attention and became the most expensive judicial race in US history. Voters ultimately elected Janet Protasiewicz, which gave liberal-leaning justices a 4-3 majority.

    In December, the newly composed court struck down the existing maps in a 4-3 decision. It ruled that the gerrymandered maps violated the state constitution’s requirement that legislative districts be “contiguous,” and ordered the governor and legislature to agree on new maps before the 2024 election. The conservative justices dissented, describing the decision as a “power grab” and the court as “[polluted] by partisan warfare.”

    “Wisconsin is a purple state and I believe our maps should reflect that basic fact.”

    If no agreement was reached, the court threatened, it would step in and impose its own maps. But in the end, state Republicans acknowledged defeat. The legislature passed district maps proposed by Gov. Evers and reviewed by the court during the lawsuit, and Evers’ signature means this has now taken effect.

    “Wisconsin is not a red state and it is not a blue state,” Gov. Evers said. “Wisconsin is a purple state and I believe our maps should reflect that basic fact. I believe that the people should get to choose their elected officials, not the other way around.”

    Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) described it as the least bad option for Republicans. “We sent him those maps, not because they are fair, but because the people of Wisconsin deserve certainty in state government,” he said. “This legislation brings to end this sham of a litigation designed to deliver judicially gerrymandered Democrat maps to the liberal special interest groups funding said litigation.”


    The 2024 Elections

    In 2024, Wisconsin voters will have a potentially decisive impact on who returns to the White House. But these voters will also now have, arguably for the first time in a generation, a real chance to flip their own legislature. Or at least one chamber.

    All 99 seats in the State Assembly are up for grabs. For the Senate, it’s 16 out of 33. The maps submitted by Evers were deemed by Republicans to be their best realistic option because it made it likely for them to keep the Senate for now, even if they lose the Assembly. With senators serving four-year terms, those elected in 2022 under the earlier maps won’t have to run again under the new maps until 2026. (The court rejected requests to have all senators run for reelection in 2024).

    “It’s very likely to be a very different legislature in 2025.”

    “There will be an awful lot of change,” state Senator Melissa Agard (D) told Filter. “With the new maps there are a lot of elected officials who are drawn into districts with one another, and there is always attrition and people who choose not to run again. It’s very likely to be a very different legislature in 2025.”

    She added that regardless of electoral outcomes, the new maps will at least make elected officials more accountable to their voters.

    “Most of the [new] districts are very competitive, so it’s not a foregone conclusion it’s going to be red or blue,” she said. “It’s going to be based on the best candidate and how they get their message out and earn their trust.”


    Potential Policy Impacts

    All of this ultimately matters in terms of the policy agenda either party will be able to pass. Under Republican control of the legislature, many Democrat-backed measures—including Medicaid expansion, cannabis legalization, abortion protections and gun safety measures—have had no chance of becoming law.

    “In Wisconsin there are a number of issues that have not even been allowed to have public hearings in the capital building, despite the fact there is overwhelming support for them,” Sen. Agard said.

    Cannabis legalization is a perfect example of this dynamic. Gov. Evers wants it, Democrats in the legislature want it, and so do 61 percent of Wisconsin votersincluding a majority of Republican voters. But Republican lawmakers rejected calls for adult-use legalization outright, and instead offered to consider medical legalization—before pulling that proposal, too.

    Sen. Agard previously spoke with Filter about her bill to legalize cannabis in Wisconsin, and the impact of the legislative maps on that possibility. Earlier in February, she slammed Republican efforts to block it as “smoke and mirrors” in a Marijuana Moment op-ed.

    “Absolutely I believe with a more fair and balanced legislature we can take some common-sense action on out-of-date drug policy.”

    Regarding other areas of drug policy, Sen. Agard said she’s now hopeful that a new legislature will take action to repeal discriminatory laws against people who use drugs; address overdose deaths; legalize psychedelics for mental health treatment; and expand recovery and treatment resources for people with substance use disorders.

    “Right now if you’re receiving public benefits you’re very likely to be drug tested,” she said. “I think that is egregious and I’m very hopeful we’re able to remove that hurdle. Unfortunately from first-hand tragedy I know fentanyl poisoning and opioids are real and they’re affecting too many people in Wisconsin. I lost my little brother to fentanyl poisoning during COVID in 2020.”

    “The list is long,” she concluded, “but absolutely I believe with a more fair and balanced legislature we can take some common-sense action on out-of-date drug policy.”



    Photograph of Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison by Lectrician2 via WikiMedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

    • Show Comments