An unprecedented and decisive federal court order on Jan. 27 directed the Wisconsin Legislature to redraw and pass into law new state Assembly district boundary maps (which also determine state Senate district boundaries) before Nov. 1, 2017. The same three-judge panel last November had stuck down as unconstitutional the hyperpartisan, secretive and costly 2011 state legislative maps. As a result, ending partisan gerrymandering in Wisconsin is now, and will be, a front and center issue for all Wisconsinites for the remainder of this year and next year as well.
This issue affects everything else that is done (or not done) in state government, so every citizen has a stake in the outcome of the struggle ahead.
The three-judge panel chose not to redraw Wisconsin's state legislative district lines, as Democrats had hoped, but that was hardly a surprise. Courts have generally given great deference to the Legislature in redistricting matters. But the unprecedented judgment that the 2011 redistricting process in Wisconsin — reported to be the most hyperpartisan, secretive GOP gerrymander in the nation in 2011 and one of the five most unfair in the history of the United States — was unconstitutional because it was so excessively partisan means that the court has directed the Legislature to pre-approve the new maps this year, before they can become law. That is a dramatic departure from the past.
Citizens can and must play a vital role in the weeks and months ahead. We must contact our legislators and demand that redrawing of the maps this year take place in the public eye, with public participation, input and scrutiny. No more secret meetings in high-priced partisan law offices where taxpayer dollars are used to draw secret, hyperpartisan state legislative voter maps.
Secondly, we must demand that the Legislature quickly hold public hearings and then consider and bring to a vote Senate Bill 13 — bipartisan legislation introduced on Jan. 26 in the Legislature by state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. This legislation, introduced for the third consecutive legislative session, is modeled after the Iowa redistricting process, which was enacted into law in 1980 by a Republican governor (Robert Ray) and a Republican-controlled Iowa Senate and House. Why? Because the governor and the legislature came to the realization that a nonpartisan system, in which a professional state agency should draw the maps (carefully following strict, specific criteria) and not partisan legislators, would have the support and confidence of the citizens of Iowa. In Wisconsin currently, public interest and concern is ignored in favor of narrow, selfish, partisan considerations.
It is imperative that all of us contact both our state senator and our state representative and demand that they co-sponsor and support Senate Bill 13. Thus far, the legislation has the support of 13 state senators — all Democrats — and 33 state representatives — including Republican Todd Novak of Dodgeville. We need to pressure Republicans to break ranks with their leaders and do the right thing for voters. If you are not sure who your state legislators are, go here. Please share with us any response you may receive. Also, please let us know if you have contacted your state senator and state representative and they do not respond. We will make that information public as well (without disclosing your name, of course).
And finally, if you have not done so already, please sign our online petition in support of the Iowa-model legislation. We are nearing 3,000 signatures and want to add to that total in the weeks ahead.
We have a genuine opportunity to vastly improve Wisconsin elections. We must take advantage of it. On, Wisconsin!
Jay Heck has been the executive director of Common Cause in Wisconsin since 1996. Go to www.commoncausewisconsin.org for more information.
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