Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups are continuing their push for redistricting reform even though they recognize it is unlikely their proposal will pass as the legislative session comes to a close.
The advocates include two retiring lawmakers, Sens. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, and Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center. They have said it is important to move the responsibility of redrawing electoral districts — a process that happens in states every 10 years after the U.S. census is out — away from politicians themselves and turn that responsibility over to a nonpartisan agency.
“[The] reason why we’re striving to do this now for 2021, which is when the next redistricting process occurs, is because it just becomes so much more difficult the closer you come to it,” Common Cause in Wisconsin Executive Director Jay Heck said.
With no action on the issue from Republican leaders in the Capitol, where Republicans have an 18-15 majority in the Senate and a 60-39 majority in the Assembly, Schultz and Cullen held their own public hearing on their proposal.
Schultz and Cullen’s proposal is similar to Iowa’s system, where the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency draws the maps and sends them to a vote in the Legislature. If lawmakers vote the maps down, the LSA redraws them. Upon the third rejection of the maps, they would be sent to the Supreme Court, except that has not happened since Iowa has had that process in place.
“This system does tend to resolve the redistricting issue quickly,” Ed Cook, legal counsel for Iowa’s Legislative Services Agency, said. “We’ve never had any litigation rising out of a plan that was ultimately adopted.”
Republicans have refused to hold a public hearing on the redistricting proposal despite pushes from various groups for reform, including the editorial boards at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Wisconsin State Journal.
In a meeting with the WSJ editorial board, Vos said he was opposed to holding a public hearing on the topic, adding that “nobody cares” about redistricting.
In a column for the Wisconsin State Journal, Sen. Mary Lazich, R-New Berlin, who chairs the Senate’s elections committee, said lawmakers should remain in charge of redistricting so they can be held accountable to their voters.
“Granting redistricting power to an unelected, appointed board would do little to remove the redistricting process from the political realm,” Lazich said in the column. “Rather, it would merely move the political maneuverings to an unaccountable board, beyond the reach of the electorate.”
The Democrats had the chance to change the redistricting process before Republicans took control of the Legislature following the 2010 elections, but they did not move fast enough to push reforms, Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D-Appleton, said at a news conference last year.
“We made the mistake of not moving it faster,” Schaber said.
Kenneth Mayer, a University of Wisconsin political science professor, said nonpartisan redistricting has proven to be a successful process for deciding redistricting maps in other states. He said both parties, if they control the process, often redraw electoral boundaries for political purposes.
“What happens [with nonpartisan redistricting] is that the districts are more regular, you tend to get more competitive races and there are fewer districts that are overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican,” Mayer said. “It has become a clear pattern that in the states in which the Legislature draws the lines, the majority party invariably draws the lines to their partisan advantage.”