Eight states didn’t wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to save them. The high court ruled last month to allow states to continue the destructive practice of partisan gerrymandering, but eight states already have — or voted to put in place last year — systems for taming their partisan spirits.
They use nonpartisan commissions to draw congressional and state district boundaries, eliminating to the extent possible partisan considerations that lead to lopsided, noncompetitive elections such as the ones we have here in Wisconsin.
This is clearly the path Wisconsin should take, but it likely won’t for at least two reasons.
For one, Wisconsin voters don’t have the power to change state law through referendums. The Legislature can put referendums on the ballot, but they’re advisory only, and the results often go ignored. The only way Wisconsin can create a nonpartisan redistricting commission is through the Legislature.
But don’t count on it with Republicans in control of both chambers. Yes, Gov. Tony Evers can veto whatever redistricting plan the Legislature devises after the 2020 census, but the Legislature will fight to retain their grossly gerrymandered boundaries created after the 2010 census.
As fundraising chairman for the Republican Redistricting Trust, former Gov. Scott Walker opposes any effort to remove partisanship from the redistricting process. He and other Republicans view nonpartisan commissions as Democratic schemes. Any redistricting map leading to fewer seats for Republicans is, in Walker’s and other Republicans’ minds, a partisan plot to bolster Democrats.
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But as we’ve previously noted, these commissions typically include members of both parties and are designed to achieve compromise. Evers’ redistricting plan, which the Legislature has predictably refused to consider, would create a new nonpartisan Redistricting Advisory Commission and give responsibility for drawing lines to the nonpartisan Legislative Reference Bureau. The bureau would be prohibited from using information that typically guides political parties in determining boundaries, such as voting trends, incumbent residence information and demographic data.
Party leaders from both legislative chambers would appoint four of the commission members, who couldn’t hold a “partisan public office” or be related to someone in public office, and those four members would pick a fifth representative to chair the commission. The five would oversee the creation of the bureau’s map, ideally a map favoring neither party.
The public wants fair elections. It wants its votes to matter, which is why it’s no surprise that 72 percent of those surveyed in a Marquette University Law School poll last year support a nonpartisan redistricting process.
How to achieve a nonpartisan system is the million-dollar question. We hope Democrats remember Evers’ proposal should they someday have the opportunity to enact it. It’s one thing to be in the minority and call for the creation of a nonpartisan commission. It’s quite another to be in majority as Republicans are today and adopt a plan that could lead to a loss of legislative seats.
Wisconsin has exhibited political courage many times throughout its history, such as in becoming the first state to give women the vote. To end partisan gerrymandering, it will need to find that courage again. It can be done, though the search might take a few years.