“Let state voters be heard on redistricting reform,” trumpeted the headline for a recent Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial, one re-printed later in the Oshkosh Northwestern. Though I have not witnessed a clamoring, a groundswell, for such reform among Oshkosh residents, at least. It certainly does not arouse the passions of Act 10, for example.
But the issue is worth studying. According to the state redistricting website, “The purpose of redistricting and the end result remain unchanged – that is, the establishment of election districts which provide representational equality for all potential voters.” Has that been achieved in Wisconsin? Has it ever been achieved?
Redistricting is done every 10 years, after the results of the US census are known. The power to redistrict in this state rests with the legislature.
In the 2010 election, Republicans gained control of both houses of the legislature as well as the governorship. They took advantage of that opportunity to craft districts to protect their interests. In fact, experts believe they crafted the 99 Assembly districts so well that they will easily maintain their majority at least until the 2020 census and re-districting.
Democrats and the Journal Sentinel (but perhaps I am being redundant) claim that is not fair. This whining downplays the fact that had redistricting been done two years earlier, when they controlled Madison, they would have done the same thing, and Republicans would be whining.
So, question Number 1 is what is fair?
Ordinarily, when power is split in Madison, the courts render the final decision. Is that fairer, less partisan? Twenty-nine circuit court judges signed the Walker recall petition la couple years ago, certainly a strong political statement. And many who did not sign probably did so for political reasons. So a case could be made that judges are as partisan as legislatures, just more discreet.
Again, what is fair? Let us study an example.
The 4th US Congressional district covers the city of Milwaukee and some suburbs. Democrat Gwen Moore has represented the district since 2005. Democrats, chiefly Clement Zablocki, have held it since 1949. It has been the most Democratic seat in Wisconsin.
The most republican is the 5th District covers the surrounding suburbs. Republican Jim Sensenbrenner has held the seat since it was formed in 2003, and represented the 9th District, covering most of the same area, since 1979.
Neither has encountered a strong challenger in elections. Sensenbrenner has garnered from 62 percent to 86 percent of the vote in recent elections. These two epitomize the concept of a “safe” district, and will probably remain so. Is that “fair?”
Assume that the area of those two districts were combined, and divided into two districts equally split between the two parties, with a few independents thrown in. Elections would probably attract strong, viable candidates from each party. One may assume that Democrats would have claimed both seats in 2008, with Republicans winning both in the Republican rebound of 2010. It would definitely be more interesting. Is it fairer than the current?
Of course, there are two problems with that scenario. First, neither party would take the step to jeopardize a safe seat. Second, Democrats would see it as another attempt by Republicans to minimize the effect of minority voters in Milwaukee. They would run to court to challenge it, as they did with voter ID, etc.
Speaking of running to the courts, Democrats did so with the latest redistricting effort. Three federal judges re-drew the boundaries of two assembly districts in Milwaukee. They opined: “Republicans who drew the new maps violated the Voting Rights Act, by splitting Milwaukee Hispanics into two districts to reduce their ability to elect at least one of their own to the Assembly.”
The judges upheld the other 99 Assembly and 33 Senate districts. But they also chastised the Republicans for “locking the Democrats out of the process.” That last statement can be classified as “no kidding, Sherlock.”
So the current solution is legal, but is it fair?
Many point to Iowa as the pinnacle of fairness.
A columnist in the Appleton Post Crescent opines: “Look at Iowa’s congressional districts and you see symmetry and balance.” True, their four Congressional districts are nearly equal in size and shape. But that does not necessarily equate to fairness. Our population is heavy in the southeast corner of the state, west to Madison, and north to Green Bay. It is impossible to cut the state into eight equal sized districts with equal population.
Iowa also uses a nonpartisan agency to redistrict, not partisan politicians. That sounds ideal. But I am a cynic. One can call an agency, or a judge, nonpartisan. But that does not guarantee impartiality..
Iowa has had the same 4 Congressmen, two from each party, since the last redistricting a decade ago. Is that fair? Who knows?
Will the perfect solution ever be achieved? No. But I am willing to concede that Wisconsin should study alternatives to improve the redistricting process.
David A. Hayford was a banker, now works for a political campaign and Day by Day Warming Shelter. He is a writer, columnist for three newspapers and other outlets. Thought-provoking, entertaining articles are his goal.