The most vital part of a successful democracy is its electoral system. Almost every other problem in a democratic government is fixable in the long term through voting. Since elections are the most powerful means of change, if elections are broken, there is little the people can do to try to fix them.
This is why gerrymandering – redrawing electoral districts for a specific party’s gain – is so damaging to the country’s governing process.
Wisconsin’s last round of redistricting didn’t pass without controversy – controversy that has yet to exhaust itself. Last year, part of a lawsuit filed against the state was resolved, with minor changes made to a couple of districts in Milwaukee.
However, after allegations that the defendant (the state) had not turned over all the material subpoenaed, a three-judge panel found that “fraud, misrepresentation or misconduct” had likely occurred, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. The panel then began a new investigation, ordering the state to turn over several computers that had been housed at the office of Michael Best and Friedrich, the law firm hired to help draw the new districts.
As it turns out, many files that could be pertinent to the case were deleted from the computers at suspicious times. According to the plaintiffs, files likely related to redistricting were deleted on two occasions: first, after the panel of judges ordered additional records turned over, and second, after the newly minted majority leader, Sen. Mark Miller, D-Monona, requested to see the files.
According to the Wisconsin State Journal report, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, did not respond to requests for comment, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, directed inquires to Michael Best and Friedrich and a message left with Michael Best and Friedrich was not returned.
While no official ruling has been made, we should have never been in this situation in the first place. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I can’t see any legitimate reason for deleting files relevant to redistricting at such suspicious times without some sort of ulterior motive. According to a source with knowledge of the case, “The court has recognized, as has the public and the media, the secrecy with which these maps were drawn is antithetical to the democratic traditions of Wisconsin.”
However, it goes even further. It appears that most Republican legislators have been sworn to secrecy about the redistricting process. A source with knowledge of the case said, “Every Republican legislator besides one or two signed secrecy agreements.” If it is found that there was a deliberate cover-up, which doesn’t seem unlikely at this point, there should be harsh penalties for everyone involved. This is not merely some low-level, white-collar crime; it is a deliberate attempt to undermine our democracy for political gain. A process that is so crucial to the functioning of our state’s government should be extremely transparent – precisely the opposite of the current situation.
While obviously important in its own right, this situation speaks to the broader issue of redistricting reform. As it currently stands, the Legislature is in charge of redrawing districts every 10 years. This is a ludicrous policy – it allows legislators to choose their own voters. There are clearly strong perverse incentives at work here, as it is actually in legislators’ best interest to gerrymander themselves into friendly districts.
This must be fixed.
Redistricting is a very complex issue, and I won’t pretend to have all the answers. However, handing the power over to an independent body, such as the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, is a good start. Currently, there is a proposed bill that would do just that. So far, the bill has received support mostly from Democrats. However, this is an issue that both parties should be able to agree on. Just because Republicans were in control in 2011 doesn’t mean they will be in 2021, when the next round of redistricting will take place.
It’s unlikely that one single reform will magically fix the issue of redistricting. This, however, is not reason to do nothing. A relatively simple reform, like the one I’ve mentioned, could go a long way toward remedying the problem, as well as the many other problems associated with gerrymandering, like increased partisanship. Hopefully, members of both parties will come together and act in the state’s, rather than their own, best interest.
We won’t know for sure exactly what happened with Wisconsin’s redistricting until May 10. Regardless of the ruling, though, we should use this as an opportunity to start a broader, more important conversation about redistricting reform. Clearly the status quo isn’t working, and that should be reason enough to take action.
Joe Timmerman ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in economics and math.