(Photo by Donna Kallner)

Through most of the drama surrounding Wisconsin’s contentious legislative redistricting process, attention has been focused on urban areas downstate. But redistricting also impacts other units of government – possibly even in your rural community. That happened where I live, and many here didn’t know we had been redistricted until they got to the polls. 

I’m an election official in my municipality’s one and only polling site. By the time the chair of our county board of supervisors came in to vote, he had already received calls from constituents. By the time my husband came in to vote and said, “I think you gave me the wrong ballot,” we nearly had three-part harmony in our poll worker chorus of “We’ve been redistricted.” 

Before that, though, I didn’t entirely understand the process leading up to this change in how we are represented at the county level. The process may differ in other states, but understanding one model can help shape questions you may want to ask where you live. So (better late than never), here’s how it happens in Wisconsin.

Redistricting is how legislative bodies adjust the boundaries of voting districts for congressional, state legislative, and local electoral districts. Every 10 years, the U.S. Census Bureau produces updated data about changes in population distribution – information used in that process. The goal is to create a balance known as “one person, one vote.” Unfortunately, the 2020 Census occurred during a global pandemic that disrupted the gathering and processing of data. Consequently, legislative bodies had extra-tight deadlines for assessing data and making decisions about redistricting. According to the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB): “Even in normal times, redistricting involves unfamiliar terms, sophisticated technology, thorny case law, and detailed processes. As a result, and because redistricting happens only once every ten years, private citizens and government officials alike tend to lack familiarity with its intricacies.” 

Ideally, voting districts (which elect county board supervisors here) would be equal in population. Ideally, they would consist of whole sub-county municipalities (called towns in rural Wisconsin) or whole wards. Wards are not election districts themselves and not subject to equal population requirements, but are considered the building blocks from which all election districts are created.

Phase 1 of the redistricting process happens at the county level and involves proposing a tentative plan for county supervisor districts; soliciting suggestions from municipalities; holding a public hearing, after which the plan might be amended; providing a copy of the adopted plan to each municipality in the county; and sending written notice to any municipality the plan proposes to divide. Phase 2 happens at the municipal level: After receiving the county’s tentative plan for supervisor districts, municipalities have 60 days to adjust ward boundaries. Wards must consist of whole census blocks (subject to exceptions); lie entirely within one municipality and one county; and be compact and contiguous. Ward boundaries may be altered to facilitate establishment of county supervisor districts of substantially equal populations. After municipalities have adopted ward plans they go back to the county for Phase 3. The county board holds another public hearing; adopts a final supervisory district plan; and files a certified copy of the final plan with the secretary of state.

Missing the deadline to complete that process poses uncertain legal consequences for county and municipal governments (LRB’s “thorny case law“). They needed to complete the process in time to determine the boundaries of voting districts before candidates could circulate nomination papers and get on the ballot for the spring election. Races on the ballot here in April included seats on the county board of supervisors. 

I live in Langlade County, where members of the county board of supervisors represent a population of 19,502 in 888 square miles divided into 21 districts. The county has 19 municipalities – one City, one Village, and 17 Towns. A typical Town in Wisconsin is about 6 square miles. I live in the Town of Wolf River, which is 118.87 square miles. So our very large municipality is split into two wards. 

For many years, the boundary between those two wards was what is locally known as the Deer Park: North of the Deer Park was one ward, south of the Deer Park was another. Those municipal wards were in county-level Voting Districts #17 and #18, respectively.

Redistricting took what used to be the northern ward and stretched it the length of the township from north to south along the Highway 55 corridor and west to the river. Municipal Ward 2 (pop. 550), is now combined with the neighboring Town of Langlade Ward 1 (pop. 395) to make a county-level Voting District (#17) with a total population of 945. 

The remaining area of the Town of Wolf River – municipal Ward 1 (pop. 233) – now covers just the area along the town’s southern border, including the area west of the river. It’s combined with the Village of White Lake (pop. 262) and the neighboring Town of Evergreen (pop. 462) for a total population of 957. That’s now county-level Voting District #18.

After redistricting, I live in District #17, where the incumbent on the ballot for county board supervisor was running unopposed. Being south of the Deer Park I would have been in District #18 if the boundaries had not changed in 2021 (based on the 2020 Census). So some voters who live along the Highway 55 corridor south of the Deer Park came to the polls expecting to vote in District #18, where the incumbent had retired and there were two candidates on the ballot. With little else on the ballot (a state judicial office and school board, where incumbents were unopposed), voter turnout was low. The winner in District #18 was decided by two votes. And I suspect people who didn’t vote in April still don’t know we were redistricted.

Local newspaper coverage of redistricting before the election mentioned ward changes in the City of Antigo, and that voters there could see the redrawn ward map at City Hall. Significant changes in population distribution in the City could have resulted in the loss of a ward there, and consequently, a reduced number of City districts represented on the county board. With limited time for further study and negotiations, the board accepted maps that maintained the number of City voting districts by shifting boundaries – and not just in the City. To achieve county-level voting districts with essentially equal population distributions as required by law, boundaries were moved all the way out to my edge-of-the-county rural township.

The minutes of the county board meeting where the new maps were adopted don’t offer much explanation for the reasoning behind the changes. And I don’t recall any mention of cause-and-effect in local reporting about redistricting. That was a particularly sore point for one neighbor, who felt that anyone who reads the local paper and tries to stay informed should not arrive at the polls expecting to vote in a contested race only to be given another ballot – for a district you didn’t know you belonged to.

As a poll worker, I learned we had been redistricted during training for election officials before the April election. Our town clerk advised us that boundaries had changed and that we would need to refer to the ward numbers printed by each voter’s name in the poll book to make sure everyone got the correct ballot. Also, before the election, I checked myvote.wi.gov to see who was on the ballot and saw that my county board supervisor candidate was the person who used to represent a different district. So when I did vote, I wasn’t surprised.

But it was a challenge answering other voters’ questions about the new boundaries. We had multiple tools to help ensure people received the correct ballots. However, maps that could have helped voters understand the new boundaries were designed in color. Our town’s printer/copier doesn’t print in color. I’m afraid the black-and-white photocopies we had did little to instill confidence.

Maybe I would have felt more confident myself if I had bothered to go to any of the county- or town-level meetings where redistricting decisions were discussed or adopted. Or looked on the county’s website under Redistricting Maps for links to both county supervisory district and municipal ward maps – in color. But even in color, the maps are imperfect. 

In particular, on the Voting District maps it’s difficult to see municipal lines in districts that represent parts or wholes of multiple municipalities. And there are no legends on individual maps to help. I can appreciate the challenge it must be to produce a district map that spans three municipalities, fits on one page in a PDF, and will load on multiple devices including cell phones. And that’s just one of 21 that were needed on a tight deadline. But by 2031, these maps will be the model on which decisions are based for the next decade. 

Other than cautionary tales about partisan gerrymandering, I don’t know how much drama is still left to wring out of redistricting in Wisconsin. But at the local level – here and in other rural areas – I suspect the next few elections will find voters learning they were redistricted. 

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin. 

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