REDISTRICTING Why do legislators get to pick their own voters? Making more legislative districts competitive is a worthy goal. To get there, redistricting needs to be taken out of the hands of those who benefit with job security by how the lines are drawn.

O. Ricardo Pimentel
August 9, 2009

Left to its own devices, the state Legislature will redraw legislative and congressional districts, as it is obligated to do every 10 years after each U.S. census, to protect incumbencies and to make districts that skew toward one party or the other skew even more. 

This is a prediction on the order of foretelling that the sun will rise in the east and set in the west. 

And if, as in the past, it is left to the court to do the drawing, it will start with competing maps drawn to suit each party instead of starting from scratch with bedrock values such as competitiveness. 

In fact, as the state Supreme Court prudently tried to lay out how it might tackle redistricting in the event of legislative indecision, the reaction from the Legislature was to immediately cry, "Power grab." 

As if the annual exercise as now manipulated by the Legislature is anything but about grabbing power and holding on for dear life. 

The process is, as advocates for redistricting reform accurately put it, now an exercise in which legislators are allowed to choose their voters instead of the other way around. 

It is a system that does not allow meaningful accountability at the ballot box of legislators. Awarded safe districts, candidates are virtually impervious to challenge, as money gets poured into a mere handful of battleground districts to determine if the Legislature flips narrowly to Republicans or Democrats in any given election. 

It is a system that results in final decisions made in party primaries, with November elections rendered pro forma. And this results in legislatures in which polar opposites hold too much sway, with compromise as likely as a rain-free Summerfest. We, in effect, have legislators unreflective of the broad electorate. 

There is a better way, and Wisconsin should take it as the next annual census approaches. 

The Kessler approach Rep. Frederick Kessler (D-Milwaukee) has authored the latest effort to change how Wisconsin’s legislative districts are drawn. It would, through constitutional amendment, inject competitiveness between the two parties as the trumping factor in drawing district lines — above geographic compactness and keeping communities of interest together. 

It would do this through a complex formula that would force at least 20 Assembly districts and seven Senate districts to be crafted so that neither party enjoys unassailable advantage. 

It is silent on congressional districts. But a bigger problem is that it uses a formula so complex that it’s difficult to discern how an understandable ballot question can be presented. It requires the state superintendent of public instruction to calculate mean percentage of votes for governor and president for the two parties in five general elections in the previous decade to apportion safe Democratic and Republican districts in addition to the competitive districts. 

And, yes, we have a problem with enshrining what amounts to safe party districts in the constitution. 

Competitiveness should be a gold standard for drawing districts, but compactness and keeping communities of interest together have value that also should be weighted heavily. 

That these values often compete is inescapable. But the answer isn’t so much elevating competitiveness over other values, rather making sure that the folks who do the drawing aren’t the folks who benefit. In this way, voters can have more confidence that each value is given proper weight. One thing’s for sure: Competitiveness has no weight whatsoever when folks interested in job security or party dominance draw the lines. 

Kessler, a nationally recognized redistricting expert, has been at the forefront of pushing redistricting reform in Wisconsin. He argues that, without a constitutional amendment, competitiveness legislated as a standard into existence can just as easily be legislated out of existence. 

He has a point, and his intentions are golden. It’s just the method and the dominance of one factor over others with which we disagree. 

But there should be absolutely no doubt that, as the 2010 census approaches, reform must occur. Without it, partisan mischief will occur. 

Kessler cites the current 14th Assembly District, which had elected current Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker to the Assembly. It apparently wasn’t deemed Republican enough. So, after the 2000 census, solidly GOP Brookfield and one-third of Elm Grove were drawn in. The eastern part of Wauwatosa got sent to the 13th Assembly District, held by Democrat David Cullen. Republican Leah Vukmir represents the 14th. 

And congressional districts haven’t been immune, Kessler said. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican, benefited after the 2000 redrawing when Beloit, Democrat leaning, got drawn out of his 1st Congressional District and put into Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin’s 2nd Congressional District. Win-win, except for voters looking for more competitive races. Meanwhile, Ryan gained the traditionally Republican-leaning Milwaukee County suburbs of Franklin, Hales Corner and Greendale. 

Both are quality representatives who conceivably can win even without beneficial redrawing. Voters are not served by not putting this proposition to the test. 

The commission idea Competition might more readily be assured by an independent redistricting commission, a route some states already have taken. And Iowa is often held up as an example of responsible redistricting because it delegates the authority to draw its lines to its equivalent of our Legislative Reference Bureau. 

The argument against redistricting reform goes something like this: The people elected their representatives to make such decisions on their behalf, and the districts now are constructed as they are because like-minded people just naturally group together. 

The first argument collapses as soon as one realizes that our representatives get to choose who they represent. And just as we don’t believe that competition should trump all other factors, neither do we believe that communities-of-interest should. As currently weighted, it relegates others outside that community-of-interest to a perpetual state of being unrepresented. In such districts, elections aren’t about who has the best ideas but who has the ideology to suit the dominant community of interest — in the primary. 

Yes, injecting competitiveness will be difficult when voters of a feather flock together. But we’d have more confidence under a different process that the value is even being considered. 

The answer is for the Legislature to consider real reform, including representatives taking the responsibility for drawing those lines out of their own hands. 

Should redistricting be taken out of the hands of state legislators?

(c) Milwaukee Journal Sentinel