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Sauk County Board approves gerrymandering referendum

Judy Brey of Reedsburg Area Concerned Citizens, a progressive activist group, on Tuesday night encourages members of the Sauk County Board to approve an advisory referendum on redistricting reform.

TIM DAMOS/News Republic

Sauk County voters will be asked this fall whether state lawmakers should enact nonpartisan reforms to the way political districts are drawn.

The Sauk County Board voted 21-10 Tuesday to conduct a countywide advisory referendum on the issue in the Nov. 6 election.

The ballot question will be worded as follows: “Should the Wisconsin Legislature create a nonpartisan procedure for the preparation of legislative and congressional redistricting plans?”

The referendum is nonbinding, meaning it cannot compel the Legislature to act. It is intended to give legislators a sense of whether Sauk County voters want reform.

Eight citizens spoke to the board in favor of the redistricting question, and a second referendum proposal involving the influence of money in politics that was slated to be considered Tuesday night. The board opted to adjourn for the evening before considering the latter one.

“This referendum is not something that is going to take a lot of effort on your part,” Tammy Wood of La Valle, a Democrat and progressive activist, told board members. “You just put that question on a ballot that’s already being handed out. I just don’t understand why you would be reluctant to hear and to pass on our voices from Sauk County to Madison.”

Only one person who spoke to the board encouraged supervisors to vote against the proposal. Scott Frostman, a one-time Republican Wisconsin Assembly candidate and conservative columnist for the Baraboo News Republic, said the redistricting referendum was premature because of an ongoing U.S. Supreme Court case.

In 2016, a federal court ruled that the controversial political maps drawn up by Wisconsin Republicans in 2011 were an unconstitutional gerrymander intended to hurt Democrats’ chances of winning Assembly seats. The state has appealed that ruling to the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.

“It is inappropriate for us to weigh in on that issue at this time,” Frostman said. “The Supreme Court will determine whether the maps drawn in 2011 were valid or invalid.”

An explanation that was to accompany the referendum said that a “yes” vote would indicate that the voter agrees with creating a nonpartisan redistricting procedure “to end gerrymandering.” That term is used to describe instances in which a political party draws districts designed to ensure future victories.

Supervisor David Moore of Wisconsin Dells, a two-time Republican candidate for state Assembly, proposed an amendment to remove references to the word “gerrymandering” from the explanation, saying that would make it “less partisan sounding.” Supervisors voted 27-4 in favor of that amendment.

Prior to the April election, a similar referendum proposal failed to make it out of committee. Since then, 12 new supervisors have been seated. The board also has elected Supervisor Peter Vedro of Baraboo, the one-time Democratic state Assembly candidate who sponsored the proposal, as its chairman.

Supervisors who opposed the prior effort said placing a gerrymandering referendum on the ballot might anger certain state lawmakers. That argument was not raised the second time around.

Those who argued against the referendum Tuesday said it was outside the purview of the county board and nothing more than political jockeying. Others said it was unnecessary, because the county board already had weighed in on gerrymandering in a September resolution.

“To put this on the ballot where everything was taken care of once before, it’s like milking the same cow twice, 10 minutes apart from each other,” said Supervisor Brian Peper of Loganville. “Well, at least you milked her twice a day, but you probably ain’t gonna get much satisfaction out of the second milking.”

Peper said constituents in his district called the referendum “stupid” and a “waste of money.” He called for a new county board chair election earlier in the evening, and made a motion to end debate on the referendum about 15 minutes into the discussion.

Peper then shouted back at Vedro that he was wrong after he ruled the motion out of order. A controversial board rule says such motions “shall not be in order until every member has had” an opportunity to speak once.

It will cost the county less than $100 to add the referendum question to November ballots, Sauk County Clerk Becky Evert said.

Supervisors who supported the referendum said it merely gives the county’s residents an avenue to speak directly to state lawmakers about an important issue. They said it’s within the county’s right to do that.

“I understand our duties are prescribed by statute,” Supervisor Valerie McAuliffe of Prairie du Sac said. “But we also have leeway in what is not discouraged by statute… It is something that we can provide as a service, whether it’s necessarily our purview or not. It’s just a say so.”

Supervisors who voted against placing the referendum question on local ballots were as follows:

  • District 1 Supervisor Wally Czuprynko of Lake Delton
  • District 3 Supervisor Chuck Whitsell of Wisconsin Dells
  • District 8 Supervisor John Deitrich of Reedsburg
  • District 9 Supervisor Tommy Lee Bychinski of Reedsburg
  • District 10 Supervisor Marty Krueger of Reedsburg
  • District 12 Supervisor David Moore of Wisconsin Dells
  • District 21 Supervisor Chuck Spencer of Baraboo
  • District 25 Supervisor Brian Peper of Loganville
  • District 26 Supervisor Brandon Lohr of Prairie du Sac
  • District 30 Supervisor Donna Stehling of Sauk City

Follow Tim Damos on Twitter @timdamos

Reporter for the Baraboo News Republic.