Several editorial boards across the state recently called upon state lawmakers to hold hearings on proposals that would reform the way Wisconsin does redistricting. They contend that an independent entity is better suited than politicians to draw political boundaries fairly and transparently, resulting in more competitive districts and less partisan legislators.
In response to these urgings, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) stated: "I have no interest in turning [redistricting] over to an unelected, unaccountable board of individuals that could bring their own partisan leanings and internal agendas to the process."
That statement implies that the current process is model of good governance. In fact, it is difficult to find a legislative process less accountable, less transparent, and with more internal agendas than the current redistricting system in our state. The process has been fraught with problems for decades, no matter the party in power.
Current redistricting policies reflect the will of legislative leadership, not the will of the people. The 2011 district maps reflect the Republican Party control of the Legislature and the Governor's office, giving maximum benefit to that party. As a result the City of Beloit was split into two Congressional districts and two State Senate districts. Monroe County now has two Congressmen, two State Senators and three Assembly representatives. With a population that is 10,000 less than one Assembly district, residents of that county are now a very small constituency of multiple districts. Who will be their champion in Congress and the Legislature?
The 2011 redistricting process was particularly rushed as the majority party sought to create new districts before the Senate recall elections in August. With the Democrats essentially powerless, the majority passed the new plan in less than two weeks. They had to change long-standing law in order to make it possible to do so, reversing Wisconsin's tradition of having local governments draw local districts before the state Legislature weighs in. In 2011 the county commissions were well along in their work when the state Legislature imposed its maps and the local governments had to conform. The Legislature made these drastic changes with only one public hearing at which the outcome was predetermined. Surely this cannot be called accountability.
It was revealed later that the 2011 district maps were actually drawn by a large Madison law firm. Secret emails were hidden from the public. The cost of litigation to shine a light on the process was almost two million taxpayer dollars.
Wisconsin's redistricting process is hardball politics, and the internal agendas are myriad. Redistricting has been used by legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle to punish or reward members of their own party, as well as of the opposition party. Incumbents who don't tow the party line have been drawn out of their districts by their own leaders.
The consent of the governed is a fundamental principle that makes democracy work. The present redistricting process in Wisconsin makes a mockery of that principle. Yet good, workable alternatives are in place in other states. For example, the Iowa model is accountable, transparent, and without hidden agendas. And it costs a fraction of what our system costs.
A proposal similar to the Iowa plan is before the Wisconsin Legislature now, but two committee chairs are refusing to give it a public hearing. If they represented competitive districts, they would not dare to ignore the public call from all over the state to give redistricting reform a hearing.
All Wisconsinites deserve a nonpartisan redistricting system which puts the voters - not the politicians - in the driver's seat.