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Redistricting; Drawing Wisconsin's lines

Copyright 2007 Journal Sentinel Inc.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ( Wisconsin)

March 25, 2007 Sunday
Final Edition

Drawing Wisconsin's lines;
Add redistricting reform to the must-do list for a state Legislature that is in all too much danger of being disconnected to Wisconsin's voters and interests. Competitive legislative districts must be the goal.

BYLINE: PIMENTEL, Staff, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Wisconsin is a purple state. Not rabidly red and not ballistically blue. Pragmatically purple.

But you might not be able to tell that, given how intensely partisan the voters' representatives often are on a variety of important issues. It is as if they represent a state riven into implacable, ideological camps. The result has been a state Legislature unable to move the dial on various vital issues, campaign finance reform key among them.

This happens because the districts legislators have crafted for themselves are too lopsidedly blue or red. This means maximum advantage for incumbents' own re-elections and the luxury of remaining as ideological as they choose. The better to survive primary races to earn, essentially by default, their party's votes in the general election.

This system pretty much guarantees that the Legislature clones itself virtually every election, though circumstances can change outcomes at the margins, as in the 2006 election, when the state Senate changed hands and Democrats picked up seats in the Assembly.

The likely cause of that shift, however, was the Iraq war and general dissatisfaction with the national party in power for a variety of other reasons as well. This had discernible local fallout.

But absent such political riptides, the present-day redistricting system is simply too prone to promoting political inbreeding. A paucity of new blood from sturdier stock means an imperfect genetic pool, politically speaking, with bad traits repeated through the generations.

Redistricting reform can be the political equivalent of genetic engineering.

Wisconsin simply must reinvent itself politically so its representatives are more reflective of the state's pragmatic norms than its political extremes.

To do that, competitiveness must be what substantively guides the redrawing of legislative districts that occurs every 10 years after the U.S. census. If most districts are solidly blue and solidly red, with little chance of seats ever changing hands, there is virtually no incentive for lawmakers to legislate from anything but immovable positions. There is no need to moderate positions to reflect minority-party views existing in their districts. Those people and those views then don't get represented by their representatives.

There is circulating in the state Legislature a draft bill, the result of a compromise between Reps. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) and Spencer Black (D-Madison), that would impose this condition of competitiveness on more of Wisconsin's state legislative districts.

The bill is imperfect but is ideal as a jumping-off point to change how the state crafts its legislative districts. That change is imperative.

It would create a state redistricting board composed of state constitutional officers, plus one - the attorney general, secretary of state, state treasurer, superintendent of public instruction and a member appointed by the state Supreme Court.

Strict partisans might sense a Democratic tilt. But this board would not draw the lines. That would be left to the revisor of statutes, a civil servant appointed by the Legislature. He, in turn, would be constrained from broad political mischief by a formula in the legislation that results in more competitive districts.

The revisor of statutes would present three plans to the board, which would pick one.

The formula involves the revisor considering the state's party split by looking at how Wisconsin voters on average split their ballots in the previous five general elections.

Say that split was 51% Republican and 49% Democrat. A 99-seat Assembly would have 50 seats with voter percentages favoring the Republicans. Those 50 seats would be drawn so that Republicans number above that average 51%.

In this formula, Democrats would get majorities in 17 of the state Senate's 33 districts.

Kessler says this simply reflects the reality that it's perhaps not possible in much of Wisconsin to craft competitive districts given residential patterns - people living next to like-minded people.

But this bill would mandate competitiveness in 20 Assembly seats and eight Senate seats, with narrow enough margins between Republicans and Democrats so either candidate has a chance.

We're not convinced the formula is workable and are particularly puzzled by how it divides the bulk of non-competitive Assembly and Senate seats. We are convinced, however, that mandating competitiveness, even by formula, is the right direction - if it can be done and still comply with the minority representation dictates of the Voting Rights Act.

The revisor of statutes - with no expertise on this issue - is likely not the best redistricting agent. The Legislative Reference Bureau is a better choice.

And reform legislation also should deal with congressional districts, which the state is tasked with drawing.

Other states have enacted reform but subordinated competitiveness. That is not reform.

This kind of change in Wisconsin would require a constitutional amendment, meaning votes by two consecutive legislatures before it is put on the ballot.

The temptation will be for legislative leadership to quietly deep-six this bill. It should instead view it as an opportunity. It should recognize that if it also enacts broad campaign finance reform, redistricting reform could make this the year that Wisconsin becomes the nation's model for good government.

Copyright 2007, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.)