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Federal judicial panel hears the case

On Friday, a three-judge panel concluded a swift but highstakes two-day federal trial on the legality of Republicans’ new legislative district maps.

The judges will decide in the next two weeks whether the Republicans’ plan to create two South Side Assembly districts with a high number of Latino residents is lawful.

The immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera and its allies argued that the two districts split the city’s Latino residents into separate districts and would dilute the power of the Latino vote, lessening the chances that a Latino candidate would be elected to the state Assembly.

They say that the Republicans’ map violates the Voting Rights Act and should be struck down by the judges.

Weakening the Latino Vote

In the map used since the 2000 U.S. Census, Assembly District 8 contained the heart of the city’s Latino voters on the near South Side. Its state representative from 1998 to 2010 was Pedro Colón; its current representative in the state Assembly is Jo- Casta Zamarripa. Both Colón and Zamarripa are Hispanic Democrats.

Assembly District 9, represented by Democrat Josh Zepnick since 2002, has been situated south of the Latino-heavy District 8, and is comprised of mostly white, non-Hispanic voters like Zepnick.

But the map proposed and passed by Republicans last year would split District 8 more or less in half, then join each section with parts of Assembly District 9. Instead of two districts stacked on top of each other, the new districts would be long and narrow, with the former Latino-heavy District 8 comprising the northern parts of the new districts and the former white-heavy District 9 making up the southern portions of the new districts.

More than 48,000 residents were moved to create the new districts.

Attorneys for Voces de la Frontera stated that the new Assembly districts would dilute the voting power of the city’s Latino population. Lead attorney Peter Earle and multiple witnesses argued in court that although the new districts would have a high number of Latino residents, Latino voters would be in the minority in the new districts 8 and 9. That’s because the South Side’s white, non-Hispanic residents have a higher rate of voter registration and turnout, while the South Side’s Latino residents are less likely to be registered to vote or old enough to vote.

The attorneys argued that 300,000 Wisconsin voters would be disenfranchised in state Senate elections this year because the Republicans have so radically shifted voters from one district to another.

Republicans argued that the new maps would give Milwaukee’s Latino voters the opportunity to elect two Assembly representatives instead of one because Latino residents would comprise the majority—or close to the majority—of the new districts.

But, in fact, one of the Republicans’ witnesses, demographer Peter Morrison, admitted under oath that according to his own calculations the new Assembly District 8 would not have a majority of Latino voters until November 2018 and the new Assembly District 9 would not have an effective Latino voting majority until after 2020, when a new U.S. Census will be conducted and a new legislative map drawn.

To bolster their claims, attorneys for Voces de la Frontera showed that Pedro Colón, the longtime representative of District 8 in the state Assembly, would likely lose an election in the new District 8. The judges were presented with vote tallies from Colón’s 2008 race for city attorney against Grant Langley, who is not Hispanic. According to those results, Colón carried the municipal wards within the old District 8 but would have lost to Langley in the new District 8.

Earle and Voces de la Frontera argued that the new map violates the federal Voting Rights Act, because white South Side voters would be able to defeat the Latino community’s preferred candidate in District 8.

Big Changes in Racine and Kenosha

The three judges—J.P. Stadtmueller, Robert Dow and Diane Wood—also heard testimony on the radical changes to the state Senate districts in Racine and Kenosha counties.

For roughly a century, each county had its own state senator, and both are considered to be swing districts that elect both Democrats and Republicans. But the Republicans’ new map splits the two counties between their rural and urban populations. If these districts are implemented, city of Racine and city of Kenosha voters would be joined in one Senate district, while the residents of the rest of Racine and Kenosha counties—primarily rural areas— would be placed in one Senate district.

More than 74,000 Racine and Kenosha residents would be moved out of Senate District 22, the Kenosha County district, and into the new Senate District 21. Because state Senate terms are staggered, these residents would lose the right to vote in the fall 2012 election because only senators from even-numbered districts are up for election this year.

The attorneys argued that 300,000 Wisconsin voters would be disenfranchised in state Senate elections this year because the Republicans have so radically shifted voters from one district to another. These voters would have to wait six years, instead of the usual four, to cast a ballot for the state Senate.

The judges also heard testimony on the Republicans’ unprecedented efforts to draft the new maps in secret. The Republicans hired private attorneys— James Troupis and the firm Michael Best and Friedrich—to advise them, then required Republican lawmakers and redistricting experts to sign secrecy agreements so that they would not disclose information about the maps to the public. Aides to Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) and Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) still work within the Michael Best offices and documents revealed in this case show these legislative staffers used their private email accounts, not their legislative accounts, when discussing the new map.

As part of their redistricting strategy, Republicans passed a law last summer allowing the legislator-drawn map to override ward maps drawn by local municipalities. Previously, state lawmakers used the locally drawn ward maps as the basis of the new legislative maps.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca (D- Kenosha) testified on Thursday that the new maps caught Democrats off guard, since they had been shut out of the redistricting discussions and had been waiting for local maps to be finalized before state lawmakers would begin working on the new legislative map.

Comment on this article at expressmilwaukee.com.