MADISON — You already know how nasty, costly, partisan and ugly the politics and the conduct of state government has become in Wisconsin, particularly in the past couple of years. Our state was heralded as the national model for clean, honest, accountable politics and government, but not anymore.
The most prominent reason for the dysfunction now dominating our state is the method Wisconsin uses to redraw and reconfigure congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years. The current process has produced too many uncompetitive general elections in which the winners are really determined in partisan primary elections. This has often allowed the most extreme partisans from their respective parties to be elected. Bipartisan compromise becomes virtually nonexistent. Instead, we have bitter partisanship, paralysis and polarization.
Wisconsin’s last redistricting process, in 2011, was among the most secretive, hyper-partisan and unfair in the nation and the worst in Wisconsin’s history. Adding insult to injury, it has cost state taxpayers almost $2 million thus far to pay lawyers to work behind closed doors devising uncompetitive congressional and state legislative districts without public input or scrutiny.
The Republicans had complete control of the redistricting process in 2011, but had the Democrats controlled the Legislature, they would have done the same thing. When partisan politicians are left to decide congressional and state legislative boundary lines, they cannot resist the temptation to draw the lines to advantage their political self interest.
In 1998, there were five competitive U.S. House seats in Wisconsin. Today none of Wisconsin’s eight congressional districts can be considered competitive. The winners of all eight U.S. House races in 2012 won by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent or greater, Common Cause in Wisconsin found in a recent analysis.
In the Assembly in 2012, we found that only 14 of the 99 Assembly elections fell into the “competitive” category, with Republicans winning 11 of those contests and Democrats three. Obviously, the 2011 redistricting process left little choice for most Wisconsinites. Members of Congress and of Wisconsin’s Legislature now choose their voters. It is supposed to be the other way around.
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But there is support building to reform this situation. Very soon, a new redistricting reform measure will be introduced in the Legislature. It is based on the method Iowa has been using since 1980. There, a nonpartisan legislative agency is charged with redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines after every census without political or partisan consideration and with the responsibility of drawing compact districts that keep communities of interest intact. The Legislature can only vote yes or no on the plan produced by the nonpartisan entity.
The result is astonishing. Iowa has far more competitive elections for both the Legislature and Congress than Wisconsin, and the cost to the taxpayers in Iowa for redistricting is virtually nothing. Iowans have confidence in the system, and now that they have become used to it, so do Iowa’s legislators. It works in Iowa and would work in Wisconsin.
Redistricting reform must pass and be enacted into law soon for it to be in place for 2021. The closer we draw to 2021, the more incumbent legislators will view reform as a threat to re-election. If we further delay redistricting reform, the odds that the Legislature will reform itself diminish daily, so time is of the essence.
Redistricting reform is a no-brainer for Wisconsin’s voters, and it ought to be that way for Wisconsin legislators as well. Voters deserve real choices at election time, not hyper-partisan contests that further undermine confidence in our state government.
Jay Heck is the executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin.