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How could gerrymandering and voter ID battles decide a key 2020 battleground?

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By Roey Hadar

Gwen Ifill Fellow

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide later this term on two partisan gerrymandering cases involving a Democratic gerrymander in Maryland and a Republican gerrymander in North Carolina.

In the last three years, federal courts have tossed out gerrymandered electoral maps in three heartland states -- Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is embroiled in legal battles over both redistricting and voter ID laws. In 2016, voters elected Republican Donald Trump president by under 30,000 votes.  In 2018, Wisconsin voters chose Democrat Tony Evers as governor by a similarly close margin.

We talked with Zac Schultz, a reporter and occasional anchor for Wisconsin Public Television’s weekly news and politics program "Here and Now," about how local voting rights battles may have national consequences.

Wisconsin was one of the closest states in the 2016 election and it also had a voter ID law on the books that was challenged several times in court. What issues have you seen people raise when it comes to voting and voting rights issues in Wisconsin?

The number one concern from the Democrats point of view is certainly, voter ID. In Wisconsin the law says that one has to be provided if you bring the proper documents, it's free of charge at the Department of Transportation Motor Vehicles Centers around the state, but there are a number of studies that have looked and tried to estimate how many people are still not able to get an ID.

It could be as many as a couple of hundred thousand potential voters or it could be much smaller than that. We don't have an exact figure, a lot of it stems from people not having access to the proper documentation that they need to provide in order to get the free voter ID.

You mentioned Democrats’ concerns. Have Republicans raised concerns, too?

The Republicans have been pretty successful in most elections and when they are winning or even losing you don't hear them talk too much about voter suppression or voter access. Some of the things they have concerns about have more to do with when the polls are open for early voting. They've had a number of bills over the years that have tried to ratchet back or the limit hours or the days of the week, or how many days before an election that a local municipality can have open hours for people to do early voting.

They believe that early voting in large communities favors Democrats specifically in Milwaukee or Madison, while a lot of Republican voters are in rural areas, where their only place to vote early may be a town hall that's open two hours a week at most, and they don't have full-time staff there to handle the extended hours.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has been trying to push to expand voting rights. What has he been trying to do on this issue and what sort of impact is it having?

Gov. Evers has put out his proposal for automatic voter registration, but the relationship between the governor and the Republican legislature varies from either nonexistent to contentious. There is really nothing happening and very little getting done and they can't even agree on some of the easy things.

Republicans are not in favor of automatic voter registration and they have not been, otherwise they would have passed it in the eight years they had complete control under Governor Walker. So it seems unlikely that it would be passed under Governor Evers.

There is an argument that you don't really need automatic voter registration because Wisconsin is a same-day registration state. You show up at the polls on Election Day—if you have an I.D. and the proper form to show where you live, you can vote. It really isn't something that is holding back voter turnout in Wisconsin.

What impact do you see voter access and voter I.D. having heading into 2020?

It's difficult to predict what impact voter I.D. will have because it was passed in 2011, when Republicans first gained complete control, but because of a number of court cases, it wasn't in place for a major election until 2016.

Wisconsin presidential election turnout numbers dropped radically from 2012 when there was around 70%, to 2016 when there was around 55% turn out. But how much of that was simply lack of enthusiasm, on the part of Democratic voters is unclear.

There has been some evidence, there were a lot of African American Democrats living in Milwaukee that simply didn't turn out to vote. But it shows that they weren't excited or enthused. That's also a population where there is a lot of people who don't have access to voter I.D., but how much of an impact it might have had or will have in 2020 is completely unknown at this point.

Democrats had enough turnout in 2018, for the gubernatorial election, to elect Tony Evers. The Democrats have been doing quite well in that election and last year’s state Supreme Court election, so in some sense they should feel confident that they can get their voters out.

It is really about enthusiasm in Wisconsin. If you have a candidate they believe in, they will typically show up, but it is also going to be extremely close. Because that is the pattern in Wisconsin, if you take away the two Barack Obama elections in 2008, and 2012, Wisconsin always been extremely close when it comes to Presidential elections.

What sort of national implications do you see in the fight going on in Wisconsin right now on voting rights?

Well, I think the biggest one that parallels the national discussion is redistricting because Wisconsin was part of a case that went to the Supreme Court. The court essentially punted it back to a lower level and that was before Justice Anthony Kennedy retired, so if the case does make it all the way back up there, it will be a new court to decide that. If there is a Supreme Court decision, either on Wisconsin's maps or on redistricting in general, that would have a huge impact.

When Republicans came into complete power in 2011, they created a very favorable map and it was only in later court cases where the information came out that that showed how clinical they were in creating districts that gave them a very clear majority in both the State Assembly and Senate.

Other than for a few months about seven years ago, Democrats have not controlled either one of those chambers since, and even when they are winning statewide races, they aren't coming close in either one of the state houses to taking the majority back. So, redistricting is a key question here and Gov. Evers has introduced a number of proposals that would go to nonpartisan redistricting, but the Republican legislature has no interest in that.

A governor would have to sign off on it, so for the next round of redistricting Governor Evers could and likely would veto any bills put out by Republicans unless they somehow reach a deal on what kind of districts they would want to put forward.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.