The following editorial was published in Sunday’s Wisconsin State Journal:
A panel of judges ordered state leaders Friday to redraw the boundaries of Wisconsin’s legislative districts so that they no longer blatantly favor Republican candidates in key races.
That’s good news for all state voters — not just Democrats — because current Assembly and Senate voting district maps protect many incumbents of both political parties.
Wisconsin needs fair maps so the will of voters is respected in elections, and so citizens can hold their leaders accountable.
Calling the maps an “unconstitutional partisan gerrymander,” the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the Legislature to redraw legislative districts by November.
Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel’s office, which has been defending the rigged maps, appears eager to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is disappointing. It’s unclear when or how the high court might act.
In the meantime, the best approach is to move forward with a fair, open and inexpensive process for redoing the maps. In other words, Wisconsin should adopt Iowa’s nonpartisan redistricting model.
Many Democrats and a Republican — Rep. Todd Novak of Dodgeville — last week proposed Senate Bill 13, which mirrors Iowa’s highly successful process. Iowa assigns the task of redrawing districts after every major census to a nonpartisan state office. Strict guidelines require Iowa’s neutral map makers to draw districts as contiguous as possible while following municipal lines and ignoring the impact on incumbents. The independent agency holds public hearings on its maps around the state.
Iowa Republicans and Democrats alike support and respect this process. They have approved the agency’s maps by huge majorities. Voters benefit from more competitive races. Taxpayers hardly spend a dime.
Compare that to Wisconsin’s map-making process in 2011: Top Republican lawmakers and their staffs — working in secret at a private law firm — plugged voting data from past elections into computers to figure out the most advantageous boundaries for GOP candidates. The goal was to give conservative candidates an edge in swing seats. The drafters also packed Democratic-leaning communities into districts the GOP figured it wouldn’t win anyway.
As a result, in 2012, the GOP won 60 of 99 seats in the state Assembly, even though Republicans captured only 48.6 percent of the vote statewide. In 2014, the Republicans collected 52 percent of the vote and won 63 Assembly seats. And in the last election, the GOP majority expanded to 64.
Some of the disparity for Democrats results from the high concentration of Democratic-leaning voters living in Madison and Milwaukee. But that doesn’t explain the highly unconstitutional effect of Wisconsin’s Republican-drawn maps, the court determined. The maps have helped the party control the statehouse for most of this decade.
The court could have drawn new maps itself. Instead, it told state leaders to redo the maps in a more reasonable way. We understand the court’s unwillingness to take over the process, given legal precedents and state constitutional language assigning the task to the Legislature.
But nothing prevents state leaders from creating a nonpartisan process this spring. In Iowa, for example, the Legislature and governor still approve the maps as their constitution requires. But they assign the task of shaping districts to others. And if the politicians don’t like the final result, they can ask for another version.
That’s what Wisconsin’s Legislature should do by approving SB 13.
We urge Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, to do the right thing. If they draw another set of maps themselves, further legal challenges are likely, with millions of tax dollars going to high-priced attorneys and consultants.
Republican leaders already have spent more than $2 million of public money and six years of controversy on this issue. If they adopted the Iowa model instead, the process would enjoy bipartisan support at little expense or distraction.
Please choose the noble path, Speaker Vos and Sen. Fitzgerald, rather than doubling down on dishonest and unfair maps.