We sure hope today’s meeting at the state Capitol isn’t an April Fool’s joke.
Rep. Kathleen Bernier has finally scheduled a public discussion about the Legislature’s sneaky, partisan and unfair process for drawing legislative and congressional voting districts after each major census.
Unfortunately, today’s meeting is not a public hearing. Bernier is allowing only nine invited guests to speak to her Assembly Committee on Campaigns and Elections about legislative redistricting.
The event comes after the Legislature has adjourned its regular business for the year, meaning bills to end partisan gerrymandering of Wisconsin’s political maps can no longer advance. And with most of Wisconsin focusing on Tuesday’s presidential primaries, Bernier is obviously trying to minimize public attention to this good government cause while still fulfilling, sort of, her pledge.
The Chippewa Falls Republican told the governing board of Common Cause three years ago she would allow a hearing on redistricting reform. She’s finally doing that, albeit in a understated and restricted way — and only after considerable public pressure.
Nonetheless, today’s hearing represents some progress. We assume Bernier will allow an honest discussion. After all, she told Common Cause “there has to be a better way” than how the maps were drawn in the past.
Invited speakers include Jay Heck of Common Cause in Wisconsin, and Andrea Kaminski of the Wisconsin League of Women Voters. Both groups favor Iowa’s nonpartisan model for drawing voting districts once every decade to adjust for population changes.
Iowa assigns the task to a nonpartisan agency with strict guidelines to keep districts as contiguous and compact as possible, without favoring incumbents. Then the Iowa Legislature gets to approve or reject the agency’s maps without making changes. If it rejects the maps, it must say why, and then the agency draws another version using the same neutral standards.
Both Republicans and Democrats in Iowa tout the success of their system in producing more competitive elections at little cost and without expensive lawsuits.
Wisconsin taxpayers, in sharp contrast, had to pay millions of dollars in legal fees for gerrymandered districts that are oddly shaped to protect incumbents and scare off challengers.
Adopting a better system before the 2020 census should be a bipartisan goal.
Republicans controlled and used the process last time to help the GOP maintain power. Part of their strategy was to pack as many liberal-leaning areas of the state into districts the Democrats were likely to win anyway. That left the Republicans with more conservative-leaning voters in the few remaining swings seats. The net effects were fewer contested seats and more polarized politicians.
Today’s hearing, despite its limits, should help build the case for reform.