MILWAUKEE (AP) — Wisconsin lawmakers will have to redraw voting maps for two Milwaukee districts because their first effort violated the federal Voting Rights Act by weakening Hispanic voting rights, a panel of federal judges ruled Thursday.
The maps, which adjusted the boundaries of voting districts across the state, were drawn in secrecy and approved by a Republican-controlled Legislature last year, then signed into law by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
The three-judge panel ruled that the maps hurt Latino voters in Milwaukee. Instead of creating districts that kept them in a single voting bloc, improving their chances of electing Latino candidates, the maps separated them into two different districts.
The 38-page ruling means the boundaries of those two districts will have to be redrawn. No other districts will be affected.
Election boundaries have to be redrawn every 10 years to account for changes in the most recent census. The aim is to ensure that political districts across the state each encompass about the same number of voters.
Opponents of the new maps leveled two criticisms: that the boundaries weakened minority voting power by splitting up the Hispanic bloc in Milwaukee; and that the maps shifted some 300,000 voters into new districts without good reason, meaning many of them would have to wait two years more to vote in a state Senate race because of the way the races are staggered.
Supporters argued that it's impossible to draw maps that please everyone. They also argued that splitting up Milwaukee Latinos into two districts improves their chances of electing two Hispanic Assembly representatives instead of one.
The judges dismissed the latter argument.
"We have searched both Supreme Court decisions and those of other courts around the country, and we cannot find anything holding that this is an acceptable trade-off," the panel wrote.
A number of individual Democratic plaintiffs, as well as the Hispanic-rights group Voces de la Frontera, sued in federal court over the new maps. The lawsuit was filed against the state elections agency, the Government Accountability Board, which was represented in court by the Wisconsin Justice Department.
Peter Earle, the attorney representing Voces, said the entire disagreement stemmed from a "stupid" unconstitutional map that legislators drew in secret. He said his group will participate in the readjustment of the district boundaries to "make sure that the process is open, transparent and fair to all."
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said the decision was mostly in the Legislature's favor. The plaintiffs had questioned the validity of the overall maps, but the judges found that only a single boundary needs to be adjusted, he said.
"The judgments made by the Wisconsin Legislature have largely been vindicated," he said in a statement.
The court said the Legislature should now act quickly, noting that action shouldn't be difficult given that at least one alternative map had been prepared.
The judges also had harsh criticism for the Republicans who drew up the boundaries, saying they relied on a "needlessly secret" process that excluded input from the overwhelming majority of Wisconsin residents.
"Regrettably, like many other states, Wisconsin chose a sharply partisan methodology that has cost the state in dollars, time, and civility," the court said.
The court said Republicans' statements that their work was not influenced by partisan factors were "almost laughable."
"Every effort was made to keep this work out of the public eye and, most importantly, out of the eye of the Democrats," the judges said.
Lawmakers are required to follow certain guidelines when redrawing the maps after each census. For example, new districts generally have to be based on the previous ones, they must be compact and contiguous and they should minimize the number of residents who get shifted from one district to another.
The three judges originally seemed almost reluctant to hear the case, saying the issue of redrawing election maps is better handled by lawmakers than the court. Twice they encouraged lawmakers to voluntarily review the maps. Both times Democratic leaders were willing, but Republican leaders refused.
Associated Press writer Scott Bauer contributed to this report from Madison, Wis.
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