Redistricting court decision good for Wisconsin voters if ….
The recent federal court decision that found unconstitutional the 2011 Republican gerrymandering of legislative districts provides an opportunity for new, more competitive districts, districts that more accurately reflect the will of the voters. The court ordered that the legislature adopt new legislative districts no later than Nov. 1, but it did not specify a process for the legislature to follow or what criteria would satisfy constitutional requirements. This is disappointing because it leaves open the opportunity for Republicans to repeat the process by which the unconstitutional districts were created originally.
The current districts were crafted behind closed doors using outside legal counsel with no participation by members of the minority party. Only Republicans were allowed to have any access to the redistricting decisions and they were sworn to secrecy. When the record of the redistricting process became public, it showed that the redistricting was gerrymandered specifically to ensure Republican control of the legislature even if Democrats won more votes. The court found these districts so heavily gerrymandered for Republican partisan advantage that they unconstitutionally denied Wisconsin voters fair representation in the legislature. It was a glaring case of Republicans selecting their voters rather than voters selecting their representatives.
Lack of court guidance means that the Republicans who now enjoy overwhelming majorities in both houses of the legislature — largely because of gerrymandering — could submit new districts using the same secret process and gerrymandered outcome in the hope that there will be no resolution until after the 2018 elections or perhaps a different judicial outcome as new federal judges are appointed. Delay would ensure that at least half of the state senators would be elected in districts crafted to favor Republicans and would be in office during the next redistricting process.
For decades both Republicans and Democrats were both involved in redistricting decisions. When they could not agree, the courts made the decision for them or forced them to find agreement. 2011 was a marked departure from last practice. It resulted in unconstitutional legislative districts. One way to ensure new districts meet constitutional muster is to open the process to public scrutiny. By adopting a statute similar to Iowa’s redistricting law in which a nonpartisan agency such as the Legislative Council is directed to craft new districts according to certain principles such as adherence to federal law, maintaining intact communities and compactness without regard to incumbency or partisan voting history. The legislature would approve or reject the proposed maps on an up or down vote. This would make many legislators uncomfortable since they could lose their current safe districts, but it would serve the voters well. And, after all, our objective is to serve the voters. I fear many current legislators have forgotten that.