As accusations of partisanship surround last year’s redistricting process, legislators and advocacy groups have begun to focus on reforming Wisconsin’s system for drawing electoral maps.
Rep. Brett Hulsey, D-Madison, and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, met with various groups last week to discuss an Assembly bill on redistricting first introduced last July.
According to current law, the redistricting process involves solely the Legislature, which draws new maps after the population census is conducted every 10 years. The maps are then passed as bills in the Legislature and signed into law by the governor.
The proposed legislation would shift responsibility of drawing the maps from the Legislature to the Government Accountability Board, an independent agency overseeing state elections.
“The goal is that people choose their politicians and politicians don’t choose their voters,” Hulsey said. “The Republicans have been holding [the bill] up. We have asked for a hearing several times.”
University of Wisconsin political science professor Barry Burden said similar bills have been introduced in the past several sessions of the Legislature.
Burden said during the last two years of Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration, the Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature, but a similar reform bill was not passed then.
Hulsey attributed that to the bill being introduced late into the legislative session.
He added last year’s redistricting process was aimed at ensuring a Republican majority until the next redistricting cycle.
The maps are currently facing various lawsuits in court and last week a federal court ordered a release of previously secret emails between outside consultants and top Republican aides.
According to Burden, last year’s redistricting proceedings differed from those held in the past since the Republican Party was in control of the Legislature and the governor’s seat, which led to the most recent maps being passed on party lines.
“The last few cycles were all divided government. They were deadlocked, and [they] ended up in the courts,” Burden said.
While Wisconsin’s Legislature draws the district maps, a number of other states have adopted a redistricting process that is handled by an independent commission.
In Iowa, the Legislative Services Agency draws new maps. Ed Cook, legislative counsel to LSA, said these maps are then submitted to the Legislature. In drawing the maps, LSA cannot consider current districts, incumbent addresses and past voting information.
Cook said the Legislature then votes on the recommended maps. If the maps are voted down, they are sent back to the LSA to be redrawn. If the maps are voted down three times, they are decided by the Iowa Supreme Court.
However, Cook said this has not happened since the process began.
In Rhode Island, the state Legislature has created an advisory commission which draws the maps and sends them to the Legislature after public input. Rhode Island redistricting consultant Jim Brace said during the last redistricting cycle, the commission held about 30 public hearings around the state.
Brace said the Legislature can either choose to turn down the recommended map or amend it. However, since the state’s legislators are mostly Democrats, he said the changes made to the maps are usually small.
While the process in Wisconsin differs from those states, Andrea Kaminski, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin, said last year’s process was highly secretive and different from what has occurred in the past.
“Usually, the local governments develop their maps first so there is some consideration of the wishes of people who know their communities best. This time, there wasn’t,” Kaminski said. “The public was closed out of [this redistricting] process.”
Because of the upcoming fall elections, Burden said he does not expect much progress on redistricting reform this year. However, he hopes the next session will pass a redistricting reform bill.
Burden said most of the current legislators would not be in office 10 years from now during the next redistricting cycle and that therefore, legislators should not be concerned about their careers when working on redistricting legislation.