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Public television spotlights redistricting success

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Obey testifies July 13, 2011, at a legislative hearing in Madison on Republican redistricting plans. (AP file photo by Scott Bauer)

Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Dave Obey testifies July 13, 2011, at a legislative hearing in Madison on Republican redistricting plans. (AP file photo by Scott Bauer)

A Sept. 5 report on Wisconsin Public Television’s “Here and Now” program called Republican state Rep. Amy Loudenbeck’s district “a microcosm of the state of Wisconsin.”

That it is. The district, occupying parts of Rock and Walworth counties, is part urban and part rural. It also is part old industrial in Beloit and part upscale tourist town in Williams Bay.

It also is a microcosm of something else: the redrawing of voter boundaries for partisan ends.

Loudenbeck was elected in 2010 to a district that included all of Beloit, a Democratic stronghold. She lost in the city but carried the outlying areas to snare 54 percent of the total vote.

Then came the eruptions of 2011 over curbing collective bargaining for public employees and cutting money for public schools. Loudenbeck backed those changes and a new state voter ID law. Democrats warned that she would pay in the 2012 election, a consequence Loudenbeck was prepared to accept.

“I was very aware that there were people that were going to be unhappy,” Loudenbeck told WPT. “I didn’t have an expectation of winning a second time.”

But she won with 56 percent of the vote after Republicans oversaw a secretive, costly redistricting process. Loudenbeck’s new district kept her hometown of Clinton but included less than half of Beloit and contained, she said, “about 50 percent new people.”

“When the Republicans gerrymandered the state,” Sen. Tim Cullen, a Janesville Democrat and a prominent proponent of nonpartisan redistricting, told WPT, “they really took care of Rep. Loudenbeck.”

Loudenbeck said she finds that laughable, noting that hypothetical nonpartisan maps produced by a state agency at Cullen’s behest split those districts in a similar way. But WPT reporter Zac Schultz , in his report, said, “the facts are clear: Amy Loudenbeck’s re-election prospects went way up with the change.”

Indeed, her margin of victory was almost exactly what strategists redrawing the voter boundaries predicted in documents made public through a redistricting lawsuit. New computerized mapping technologies have let politicians pick their voters with astonishing precision.

WPT, in a companion report, found that the strategists’ predictions in the more than 50 GOP-held Assembly seats facing Democratic challengers in 2012 were accurate, on average, to within a single percentage point. The GOP incumbents won all but three of those races.

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

One way to maximize partisan advantage is to pack as many opposite-party voters into as few districts as possible. In the district that acquired the shorn majority of Beloit, Democrat Janis Ringhand won with 64 percent of the vote, up from her 53 percent margin of victory in 2010.

In the upcoming Nov. 4 election, the Democrat seeking that seat is unopposed, and so is Loudenbeck. Partisan redistricting took two competitive districts and made one so overwhelmingly Democratic and the other so safely Republican that general election voters will have no choice at all.

Overall, 55 of the 116 legislative seats are uncontested on the ballot. In 2010, before redistricting, only 24 seats lacked general election rivals.

Cullen, who is not seeking re-election, said he finds that deplorable, telling WPT “neither political party should be trusted to draw the maps.”

Dissenting from that view are the Republicans who control both houses of the state Legislature and have a good chance of doing so after the fall election. Loudenbeck, while acknowledging that “some of the districts became less competitive” due to redistricting, said she does not consider the process flawed.

But Common Cause in Wisconsin and its supporters are asking candidates for state office to pledge support for nonpartisan redistricting.

Among the roughly five dozen signatories are Ringhand and Mary Burke, Democratic candidate for governor. As of early September, no Republican candidates had made the pledge.

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