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Editorial: Turn over duties to nonpartisan panel

9:11 PM, Apr. 27, 2013  |  Comments
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Every 10 years the voting maps are redrawn based on U.S. Census population statistics. It has become a foregone conclusion that whichever party is in power wields the influence in drawing the boundaries. Or, if power is split, the case ends up in court. We've come to just accept that outcome.

The last go-round, led by the Republicans in 2011, ended up with secretly drawn maps at a law firm with no public input. Their proposal was approved, but the process ended up in court. Legal bills are still being racked up as Democrats accuse the GOP of deleting files from computers used in the process. Accusations of gerrymandering - when boundaries are drawn up to favor a political party or group - continue today.

Before the 2010 census and the resulting squabbling, redistricting maps ended up being drawn up by federal courts after the Legislature couldn't agree on the boundaries.

It's been a contentious process that engenders bad feelings in the Legislature but, more importantly, can leave voters confused and in the dark.

But it doesn't have to be that way. There is a better and cheaper model.

A bill being sponsored mainly by Democrats - including Dave Hansen and Eric Genrich, both of Green Bay - would take the politics out of redistricting by having the Legislative Reference Bureau set up a nonpartisan commission to draw up boundaries without regard to where incumbents live, and with districts that adhere to municipal ward boundaries and that are compact and contiguous.

The proposal is largely based on Iowa's process for redistricting: A nonpartisan commission draws up the boundaries. No amendments are allowed. Three public hearings in different regions of the state are held. The legislature has a certain time period in which to vote. If denied, then the commission has a set amount of time to come up with a new map. Once approved, it goes to the governor.

In the four times Iowa has used this process, only once has a map proposal been rejected twice. There have not been any court challenges. The legislature and governor did not have to take over the process. And the proposed maps garner bipartisan support - the votes in April 2011 were 48-1 in the Iowa Senate and 91-7 in its House.

The state would save money, too. In 2011 when a similar bill was drawn up, the state estimated it would cost about $580,000 to run the redistricting program. The current redistricting effort has cost state taxpayers $2 million, so far, according to Common Cause in Wisconsin, a nonpartisan, nonprofit citizens lobby.

A streamlined process and lowered costs should be enough to endorse this process.

But if you're looking for another reason, look no further than the voting public.

The current method of redistricting disenfranchises voters and dilutes interest by playing politics with boundaries and eliminating competitive races. Voting districts at times appear to be mapped out to benefit politicians, not voters. When voting districts are redrawn this way, competitive elections are lost. When election outcomes are foregone conclusions, fewer voters turn out.

Look at the imbalance in November's election - Republicans won more congressional seats but more people voted for Democrats. The state's balance in the Assembly is GOP-heavy in a state where the majority of voters backed a Democratic president.

A nonpartisan process for redistricting would restore some sanity to the process. It would end the gerrymandering, it would let the public in on the process and, if Iowa is any indication, it would end the contentious cycle of one party being in charge of redrawing political boundaries.

The Legislature should not wait to act on this, even though the next census isn't until 2020. Act now and today's Legislature can leave a lasting legacy of a fair, open and honest redistricting program.

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Retrieving results.
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