MADISON — A nonpartisan board comprised of retired judges would be given the power to approve how Wisconsin’s congressional and legislative district boundaries are redrawn under a reform plan announced Monday by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett.
The plan drew widespread praise from reform groups that criticize the current system as being too secretive and political.
“It’s an enormously promising proposal,’’ said Jay Heck, director of Common Cause in Wisconsin. “The fact that Tom Barrett even thought to make it public and elevate it is to be commended.’’
The idea was also praised by Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a government watchdog group, as well as David Canon, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor who studies redistricting.
The plan would make Wisconsin look more like states such as California, Arizona and Iowa that rely on independent commissions or groups to handle redistricting, Canon said.
“I think that’s a great idea,’’ Canon said. “I’m very strongly in favor of that.’’
Barrett’s plan would give final authority for approving redistricting to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board. The board would be required to make districts as evenly split as possible between Democrats and Republicans, ensure that maps comply with the federal Voting Rights Act, and are available for public viewing.
Barrett said his plan would make the process more transparent, less expensive and result in more competitive districts.
The board’s director, Kevin Kennedy, said he wasn’t surprised that the independent panel would be seen as an alternative to the Legislature to handle redistricting, but he took no position on the merits of the idea.
Enacting Barrett’s proposal won’t be up to Kennedy or the next governor alone. It needs the approval of both the governor and the Legislature, which could be tricky since it would require lawmakers to give up their power to determine who they represent.
Barrett’s plan would allow the Legislature to make changes to plans forwarded to it by the nonpartisan board, but final approval would rest with the board.
California was the most recent state to head in that direction when voters in 2008 approved putting legislative redistricting in the hands of a 14-member independent commission. In November that state’s voters will consider giving that same commission the ability to redraw congressional lines.
Arizona’s independent redistricting process was also created through a voter-led referendum approved at the ballot. Wisconsin law doesn’t allow referendums to be placed on the ballot by voters. Only the Legislature can do it.
The last three times redistricting was taken up in Wisconsin, due to split political control, the Legislature and governor were unable to agree upon a plan. Each of those times, in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, a federal court had to intervene and approve a map for state legislative districts.
Redistricting was difficult even before then. In 1971, legislative boundaries weren’t redrawn until after a federal lawsuit was threatened and the state Supreme Court gave lawmakers a deadline to act before it would draw the lines.
Following the 1960 census, lawmakers couldn’t agree on a plan for state legislative districts and instead used a map created by the Wisconsin Supreme Court that it intended only to be temporary.
Barrett said he believed his plan could be enacted before lawmakers take up redistricting, likely sometime next spring.
Republican gubernatorial candidates Scott Walker and Mark Neumann largely ignored Barrett’s proposal. Walker’s campaign manager Keith Gilkes said Barrett is a partisan Democrat who can’t be trusted with creating a bipartisan proposal. Neumann said the best way to stop incumbents from protecting themselves is to enact term limits.