Supreme Court Gerrymandering Case (copy)

The Supreme Court punted Wisconsin's gerrymandering case back to a lower court. (BILL CLARK/CQ ROLL CALL VIA AP)

It’s said that converts are the most zealous. Well, I converted to opposing gerrymandering, and I plead guilty to being a zealot about the need to change the undemocratic way legislative and congressional districts are drawn.

Some background: After every decennial census, districts for the U.S House and state Legislatures are redrawn so that each has the same population. While redrawing the district lines could be a modest technocratic exercise, it is usually anything but. Because those lines have a tremendous impact on which party controls Congress and state Legislatures, politicians view redistricting as a way to gain partisan advantage.

I had a front row seat to this process when I was the Democratic leader of the state Assembly after the 2000 census. I was appalled at what I saw. My experience made me a firm believer that future redistricting should be accomplished by an independent, nonpartisan board (similar to what has been done in Iowa for decades). For my remaining eight years in the Legislature, I repeatedly introduced legislation to make redistricting nonpartisan. Unfortunately, politicians repeatedly killed that proposal.

I witnessed a partisan legal brawl that wasted millions of tax dollars in a crass effort to maximize the benefits of incumbency and minimize the choices for voters. In the end, neither partisan side prevailed since a divided Legislature couldn’t agree on a map. Ironically, the district lines that were eventually drawn by the federal court were fair. That court essentially served as an independent redistricting body.

The key to a fair map is that voters decide the results of an election — the very essence of democracy. The maps that the federal court drew for the next decade allowed voters to exercise their will and repeatedly change control of the Legislature. Control of the Assembly went from Republican to Democratic and then back to the GOP. The Senate switched even more — D to R to D to R.

The current legislative maps are very different. Republicans controlled state government in 2011 and drew maps that ensure they retain control of the Legislature regardless of the will of the voters. In the last election, the Republicans won only 45% of the vote for the state Assembly yet gained an astounding 64% of the seats. Realistically, Republican-drawn maps mean we do not have elections for control of the Legislature in Wisconsin. Similar to Russia and North Korea, the party in power rigged the system to remain in power.

By law and precedent, Republicans shouldn’t be able to gerrymander after the 2020 census because Gov. Tony Evers will veto gerrymandering. However, they are scheming to perpetuate gerrymandering with the connivance of the highly partisan state Supreme Court. Even though the law requires that the next redistricting be approved by both the Legislature and governor, Republicans are plotting to continue partisan redistricting and deny Wisconsin voters real elections for another decade.

Republicans are reported to be considering two ploys. One route would illegally bypass the governor and redistrict by legislative fiat. The second would seek to usurp the traditional role of federal courts and instead have the state Supreme Court gerrymander for them.

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Either approach would need the rubber stamp of the Republican-aligned Supreme Court justices, who have abandoned all pretense of judicial neutrality and have become blatantly partisan operatives in black robes.

I oppose the recall of judges except in extreme cases. However, if the state Supreme Court acts in an overtly partisan manner to deny democracy to Wisconsin voters, the only recourse will be to recall the justices who prevent fair elections. That would be a statewide election, and it can’t be gerrymandered.

Spencer Black served for 26 years in the state Legislature. He was chair of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and the Assembly Democratic leader. Since leaving the Legislature, Black has been vice president for conservation for the national Sierra Club and adjunct professor of planning at UW-Madison.

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