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Jay Heck: NOW is time to reform redistricting process

Jay Heck: NOW is time to reform redistricting process

You already know how nasty, expensive, bitterly partisan and just plain ugly the politics and the conduct of state government have become in Wisconsin. Particularly within the past couple of years. It has gone from just plain bad to almost unbearably terrible.

Our state was, not so very long ago, heralded as the national model for clean, honest, accountable government Every other state wanted to be like Wisconsin. Not anymore. We’ve fallen so far.

There are a number of reasons for this state of affairs. But the most prominent reason for the dysfunction and discord and the one Wisconsinites should focus on right now is the method used to redraw Wisconsin’s congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years following the census.

Wisconsin's redistricting process has produced far too many uncompetitive general elections in which the winners are really determined in partisan primary elections. This has often caused the most extreme partisans to be elected, and bipartisan compromise with the other side to get things accomplished is now virtually nonexistent. Instead, we have partisanship, paralysis and polarization. It has torn Wisconsin apart and created an atmosphere of extreme animosity and mistrust.

Wisconsin’s redistricting process following the 2010 census was among the most secretive, hyperpartisan and unfair in the nation and the worst ever in Wisconsin’s history. And to add insult to injury, it has cost state taxpayers almost $2 million to pay high-priced Madison lawyers to work behind closed doors devising utterly uncompetitive districts without any public input or scrutiny.

The Republicans had complete control of the redistricting process. But make no mistake. — had the Democrats controlled the Legislature in 2011, they would have done the same thing. When partisan politicians are left to decide boundary lines, they cannot resist the temptation to draw the lines to advantage their own political self-interest. The public interest is not even part of the equation.

The result of the 2011 redistricting process was horrific. The winners of all eight U.S. House races in 2012 won by a margin of 56 to 44 percent or greater, Common Cause in Wisconsin found in a recent analysis. In 1998 there were five competitive U.S. House seats in Wisconsin. Today? None.

Similarly, in 2012, only one of the 16 state Senate elections was competitive, and only 14 of the 99 Assembly elections fell into the competitive category.

Members of the Wisconsin Legislature now choose their voters. It is supposed to be the other way around.

But support is building to remedy this disgraceful situation. On April 11 a new redistricting reform measure was introduced in the Legislature. It has been strongly supported by Common Cause in Wisconsin and it has bipartisan co-sponsorship. Leaders of this effort have included Sens. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay; Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center; and Tim Cullen, D-Janesville; and Reps. Mandy Wright; D-Wausau; and Eric Genrich, D-Green Bay.

The reform measure is based on the method Iowa has been utilizing since 1980. There, a nonpartisan legislative agency is charged with redrawing congressional and state legislative district lines without partisan consideration, keeping the districts compact and keeping communities of interest intact. The legislature can only vote yes or no on the plan.

The result is astonishing. Iowa has far more competitive elections than Wisconsin and the cost to the taxpayers for redistricting is virtually nothing. In addition to having real choices, Iowans have confidence in their redistricting system. And now that they have become used to it, so too do Iowa state legislators and members of Congress. It works in Iowa and would work in Wisconsin.

Redistricting reform must be enacted soon for it to be in place for 2021. Why? Because many current lawmakers will not be in office in 2021, but the closer we get to 2021, the more incumbents will view redistricting reform as a threat to their own re-election. So time is of the essence.

Redistricting reform is a no-brainer for voters. It ought to be that way for legislators as well. Voters deserve real choices at election time — not uncompetitive, hyperpartisan contests that  undermine public confidence in our state government and politics.

Jay Heck is the executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin, the state’s largest nonpartisan political reform advocacy organization.

The closer we get to 2021, the more incumbents will view redistricting reform as a threat to their own re-election.


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