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Groups eye redistricting reforms

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

By Bill Lueders

The Wisconsin Government Accountability Board’s Nov. 29 certification of the official results of the Nov. 6 election made it, well, official: Democratic candidates got more votes than Republicans in state races for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, state Senate and state Assembly.

But the Republicans were able to keep a 5-3 lead in the U.S. House of Representatives, reclaim control of the state Mike McCabe, Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, Dale Schultz, Tim CullenSenate by a margin of 18 to 15 seats, and secure a commanding 60-39 advantage in the state Assembly, despite getting fewer votes overall.

How can that be? Mike McCabe, the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan elections watchdog, has a theory:

“The outcome of this year’s U.S. House as well as state Senate and state Assembly elections testify to the power of redistricting,” McCabe said.

In the races for Congress, Democrats snared 50.4 percent of the almost 2.9 million votes cast. In the 16 races for state Senate, Democrats came away with 53 percent of the vote but lost two key seats. In the state’s 99 Assembly districts, Democrats got more than 52 percent of the vote, but won just 39 percent of the seats.

Wisconsin’s congressional and legislative voting districts were redrawn in secret by Republican lawmakers last year, based on the 2010 Census. This wasn’t the first time politics has intruded into the redistricting process, and any drawing of voter boundaries along geographically sensible lines likely will result in some inequities.

But what allegedly happened in Wisconsin is that Democratic voters were packed into a few districts and other districts were carved up in a way to give Republicans a large enough edge to win as many seats as possible.

Consider this: In the Nov. 6 election, there were 23 Assembly seats considered so safely Democratic that no Republican was on the ballot, compared to just four seats that went to Republicans without a Democrat being in the race.

The nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Wisconsin has been pushing both parties to reform the redistricting process for decades, executive director Andrea Kaminski said. These efforts haven’t gotten much traction because “the party in power wants to stay in power.” State lawmakers “are choosing their voters rather than the voters choosing them.”

The League is looking to partner with the Democracy Campaign, Common Cause in Wisconsin and other groups to take a fresh run at redistricting reform. It seeks an independent nonpartisan body to redraw voter boundaries to maximize the number of competitive seats, as is done in Iowa. Kaminski said her group favors doing this via state constitutional amendment, to protect against “the political winds of the day.”

Amending the state constitution is a multi-year process, which is why the League wants to begin now, starting with a public education campaign. Kaminski optimistically notes that lawmakers in power early in a given decade don’t have as great a stake as those later on, “when redistricting is about to take place.”

State Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, recently seconded this reasoning in remarks to Common Cause in Wisconsin, saying “this is the time to do the right thing. We don’t know who’s giving up the power that they’re going to have in 2021.”

Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, has agreed to work with Cullen on this issue, as he has before. A resolution introduced by the pair and others in the 2011-12 Legislative session to accomplish this change with a state constitutional amendment died in committee. It wasn’t even given a hearing.

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