Wisconsin’s new maps could come down to two experts. Who are they?
What will Wisconsin’s new legislative maps look like? That decision could come down to two people: Bernard Grofman and Jonathan Cervas.
Those aren’t household names in Wisconsin. But the pair is well-known in the world of redistricting, including for developing new maps in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York.
And now, Grofman and Cervas will play a major role in analyzing submissions for Wisconsin’s new legislative districts. They could even suggest adjustments or propose their own map.
As part of their 4-3 decision ordering the Republican-controlled Legislature to draw new maps, the Wisconsin Supreme Court hired Grofman and Cervas to serve as consultants to vet the proposals.
The consultants will work on a fast timeline — the maps must be in place by March 15. At this point, they’ve identified what data can be used, and by Feb. 1, they will file a report evaluating each of the map proposals.
Here’s what to know about Grofman and Cervas, their previous redistricting work and how they will evaluate or create Wisconsin’s new maps.
Who is Bernard Grofman?
Grofman is a political science and economics professor at the University of California-Irvine, according to his website.
In 2021, the Supreme Court of Virginia appointed Grofman as one of two “special masters” to draw new maps, after a bipartisan commission couldn’t agree on new districts. Unlike the case in Wisconsin, those maps included changes to U.S. House districts.
Democratic legislative leaders in Virginia nominated Grofman for that process, and Republicans chose Sean Trende, an elections analyst at RealClearPolitics. The court ordered both experts not to advocate for any particular party and gave them 30 days to draw maps.
“These maps reflect a true joint effort on our part. We agreed on almost all issues initially, and the few issues on which we initially disagreed were resolved by amicable discussion,” Grofman and Trende wrote when presenting their drafts to the court.
Grofman was also selected to redraw Virginia’s Congressional districts in 2015 and House of Delegates districts in 2018. He has testified as an expert witness in Wisconsin cases involving the state Legislature.
Who is Jonathan Cervas?
Cervas started teaching at Carnegie Mellon University after receiving his Ph.D. at UC-Irvine, where Grofman was his adviser. The two have published research together and Cervas assisted him on other map-drawing cases.
In 2022, Cervas was appointed to redraw New York’s Congressional and state Senate maps, according to his website. Before that, he was a consultant on Pennsylvania’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission, where he evaluated proposals and drew his own when needed.
Robert Byer, who also served on Pennsylvania’s commission as chief counsel, noted that Cervas received criticism from both Republicans in Pennsylvania and Democrats in New York, after the new maps lessened their power.
“You can’t be a partisan for both parties,” Byer said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel.
Mark Nordenberg, the commission’s independent chair and former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, said Cervas is “very familiar” with district-drawing technology and “the underlying law that needs to be honored in doing this work.”
In a New York Times profile published last year, Cervas expressed disinterest in politics. He said his leanings were “pro-democracy,” but was registered as an independent and voted in a Republican primary.
Are the experts nonpartisan?
Grofman and Cervas, are among the best-known, nonpartisan experts in redistricting, Byer and Nordenberg said.
“Republicans have their crop of experts, and there’s also a core of experts who routinely testify for the Democrats,” Byer said. “And there’s a small number of experts in this area who are nonpartisan, and Dr. Cervas and Dr. Grofman both are in that category.”
Nordenberg noted that the maps Cervas helped create were approved 4-1 by the commission — and unanimously upheld by the state Supreme Court, “which very often does divide along partisan lines.”
Grofman and Cervas cannot have contact with parties, their attorneys or experts involved in the Wisconsin case, other than through court filings.
Both have made contributions to one political candidate each in the past, according to federal records. In 1996, Grofman contributed $200 to former Madison Mayor Paul Soglin’s congressional campaign.
In 2006, Cervas gave $25 to John Edwards’ presidential campaign, and $2.50 to ActBlue, which fundraises for Democrats. He worked in Las Vegas as a bartender at the time.
What will Grofman and Cervas look for?
In their decision, the court’s liberal majority laid out criteria for evaluating the maps, including population equality, contiguity, federal laws like the Voting Rights Act and preserving communities of interest.
The court also said it will consider partisan impact, while remaining neutral.
“As a politically neutral and independent institution, we will take care to avoid selecting remedial maps designed to advantage one political party over another,” liberal Justice Jill Karofsky wrote. “Importantly, however, it is not possible to remain neutral and independent by failing to consider partisan impact entirely.”
If none of the submissions meet the court’s criteria, Grofman and Cervas could propose their own map. Or, they could suggest technical corrections or minor changes to the parties’ suggested maps.
Byer said that, when it comes to political considerations, Grofman and Cervas “are both very firm believers, that to the extent that you’re taking anything into account, it’s that seats should follow votes.”
In Virginia, Grofman and Trende only considered political data after the maps were drawn using required criteria, according to a memo outlining their process.
“By adhering to the statutory criteria … we minimize the risk of any undue favoritism toward either party. It would be difficult to draw gerrymanders under these constraints had we wanted to,” they wrote.
How were they chosen?
The court’s order says they contacted all potential consultants suggested by one or more parties involved in the case.
“The court determines that Dr. Grofman and Dr. Cervas possess the requisite expertise to assist the court in this case,” the order said.
When the court heard oral arguments, the justices asked attorneys for names of experts who could help the court draw the maps, if needed.
While most attorneys said they did not come prepared with suggestions, Grofman was among the few names recommended by two attorneys who brought the case or support it.
“I don’t think you can do better than Professor (Nathaniel) Persily at Stanford or Professor Grofman at UC-Irvine,” said Sam Hirsch, an attorney for a professor intervening in the case. “They have both been repeatedly cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, and they’ve played this role many times.”
Attorneys may have submitted other names — though only one public-facing document is available, which suggested Persily and David Ely, a cartographer involved in Alabama redistricting.
Do justices agree about the consultants?
In a dissent, Justice Rebecca Bradley said the decision outsourced the Legislature’s map-drawing authority to “two out-of-state, unelected and unaccountable political scientists.”
Bradley said there is no cap on the consultants’ fees, which taxpayers will pay. She also criticized the liberal majority for not giving the parties more time to give input on experts.
She added the decision did not make clear whether Grofman and Cervas are court-appointed referees or expert witnesses, which are distinct under state law. Parties could depose or cross-examine expert witnesses to ask how they reached their opinions.
If the consultants ultimately draw the maps, “it risks becoming an abdication of the court’s judicial power vested in the court,” Bradley wrote.
When Hirsch suggested Grofman during oral arguments, he also suggested the court “not go down that path” of drawing its own map.
“Crafting 132 state legislative districts, with or without the help of a professor, will pull this court deeper into the political thicket,” he said.
Nordenberg was confident that Grofman and Cervas have the experience to contend with partisan obstacles that come with the redistricting process.
“It is basically impossible to please everyone, because one party or another is going to be advantaged by the changes,” he said. “It’s very hard not to have disagreement. Redistricting really isn’t for the faint of heart.”