Ever since the redistricting maps of 2011, gerrymandering in Wisconsin has been in the political spotlight. Redistricting―redrawing voting district boundaries―is a regular occurrence in the United States. It’s intended to adjust political maps based on population and allow for fair elections. Unfortunately, it has been manipulated to further political agendas in an act called “gerrymandering.” Since the majority party draws the lines, redistricting is often used to suppress opposition and keep a certain party in power. However, an increasing number of voters and politicians are calling for reform of the redistricting process to create fairer voting districts.
Gerrymandering is nothing new to America, or even Wisconsin. The earliest example occurred in 1812 when Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts signed a redistricting law that favored his party. The voting districts under his law were extremely unfair and very strangely drawn; the districts were made so that the opposing party would be clustered into a few districts, thus minimizing the impact of the votes they received. Gerry’s party was spread out, giving them an advantage. This incident is where the term “gerrymandering” comes from; it’s a mix of Governor Gerry’s name and the bizarre shapes of the voting districts he created, which resembled salamanders.
Since then, many groups have pushed reform to no avail. Recently, two former Wisconsin state senators, Democratic Senator Tim Cullen and Republican Senator Dale Schultz, proposed bills sending new maps, if voted down twice, to the court. They never even received a hearing. Two new redistricting bills were proposed by Democrats―Assembly Bill 44 and Senate Bill 13. These bills died when neither bill got a public hearing. Despite acknowledgment of the issue from both sides, no party seems willing to part with the power to control voting districts. As Republican Representative Kathleen Bernier of Chippewa Falls said, “Neither Democrats or Republicans, holding the majority, wanted to give up that legal and ‘constitutional’ authority.”
Despite the opposition, fairer redistricting is possible. In fact, it has already been improved in one state. In Iowa, lawmakers have reformed the system. Instead of the power of redistricting being controlled by the majority party, the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency makes the map; no voting statistics, homes of legislators, or members of congress are used. Instead, it’s based primarily on population. Only designated shapes like squares and rectangles are used to avoid the problem of strangely shaped voting districts. After a new map is drawn, it is released to the public and voted on. Citizens can comment on maps, allowing for transparency in the process. If the map does not pass, it’s redrawn either until one works, or all maps have been rejected. If no maps are found to be acceptable, then the Supreme Court of Iowa draws a map. This process significantly improves on what most states do now and allows for fairer elections.
Actions are being taken to change the system. States like Wisconsin, Maryland, and Texas sued over what they considered unfair maps in the U.S. Supreme Court, which sent the cases back to the states. Further action at the state level is likely. Groups like the Fair Election Project and Citizen Action Organizing Cooperative are advocating for bipartisan redistricting in Wisconsin. Democratic Senator Dave Hansen of Green Bay is planning to reintroduce his bill on an impartial party drawing the districts, similar to the system in Iowa. To really gain ground, the push against gerrymandering requires more support from both sides. As Hansen put it, “…[T]aking the politics out of redistricting reform is needed if we are to restore―and this is so important―the people’s faith in their government…The health of our democracy and our state government is at stake, we cannot afford to wait.” The fight for reform will be long and treacherous, but with the combined might of politicians and voters, elections can be more democratic.
[Source: Wisconsin Watch]